According to a famous model by Kaushik Basu, if governments ban child labor but fail to enforce those bans - governments in countries where child labor is prevalent often have weak law enforcement in general - then they create the wrong incentives for employers and for the families of child laborers. Employers react by continuing the practice of child labor because they can often get away with it, but at the same time they lower the wages of child workers because they except to get caught at some point and be fined. They anticipate and compensate these fines by lowering wages. (Children usually don’t have the power to resist wage reductions). The families of the children in turn react by forcing more of their children to work as a way to compensate for the lost income. There’s some evidence here that this effect does indeed occur.
Perhaps we should kick the habit of relying only and automatically on legislation in order to enforce human rights. This may be a good strategy in countries that have well-functioning enforcement systems, but in developing countries it may do more harm than good. (Perhaps this is a symptom of the much criticized shortsightedness of western international development efforts). After all, it’s not as if there aren’t any non-legislative means to promote human rights.
Here‘s another example of human rights legislation that actually leads to diminished respect for human rights. More on the difficult relationship between human rights and the law is here. Some data on child labor are here. And more posts in this series are here.