Cross-cultural ethics and the child labor problem

Journal of Business Ethics 19 (1):21 - 33 (1999)
This paper examines the issue of global child labor. The treatment is grounded in the classical economics of Adam smith and the more recent writings of human capital theorists. Using this framework, the universal problem of child labor in newly industrializing countries is investigated. Child labor is placed in its historical context with a brief review of practices in the United States and Great Britain at the time those countries were industrializing. Then, child labor is examined in its contemporary global context. We argue that, as countries industrialize, they tend to follow predictable patterns of development – including use of and eventual abandonment of child labor. We argue that this convergence under the logic of industrial capitalism supports a universalist approach to human rights (that would condemn child labor) over a more tolerant cultural relativist approach.
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