Social Exchange Theory and Child Labor

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The government has taken many steps to protect children's rights. People have utilized children as cheap or free labor. Child labor refers to the improper use of children in business. People continue to engage in child labor despite the established norms and restrictions. It is astonishing that some parents allow their children to work as children. According to Hindman (2002), both the child and the person imposing child labor benefit from the act. The social exchange theory is used in this research to explain the persistent problem of child labor that the government is attempting to remedy. It uses the theory to explain the reasons why child labor persists irrespective of the measures employed by the government.

The problem-Child labor

As defined in the above section, child labor is simply the inappropriate use of a child for business. It is well known that every business aims at maximizing profits. Individuals, therefore, employ all the means possible to minimize cost as they maximize profits. Cheap labor is among the ways of reducing costs. When using a child, the organization will pay small amounts of wages or salaries as compared to when working with qualified personnel (Kirst-Ashman, 2011). At the same, the organization can misuse a child in allocating more work than they should for their benefits.

Though rules and regulations exist which discourage businesses from practicing child labor, children together with their parents and relatives have contributed to the existence of the problem. For instance, some relatives in the rural areas will force their children to go and work as house helps for some income. Some kids sneak from home or school to go and work for some income. As this is happening, a few individuals are willing to take action in reporting such cases to the responsible department (Hindman, 2002). As a result, child labor seems to continue for more years to come.

Theoretical explanation

The social exchange theory states that people’s interactions depend on the expected punishments or rewards obtained. People will repeat actions in which they get approval from others unlike those which are not associated with any reward. The theory explains that every human being seeks to maximize their benefits in interactions in the form of awards. In every interaction, there are rewards or punishments associated. The likelihood of a person repeating an action depends on the difference between rewards and punishments. If the benefits exceed the punishment, this person will repeat the action (Thomas & Iding, 2012). The theory provides a formula for predicting a person’s behavior in an interaction as, Behavior = Rewards – Costs. Rewards can take the form of money social recognition, a smile, or gifts while punishments may include beating, public humiliation, or execution.

According to the social exchange theory, persistent occurrence of child labor problem is as a result of the benefits and rewards associated with it. As pointed out earlier, both the child and the employer benefit from the action. The child enjoys the little incomes earned from labor. Keeping in mind that child labor is illegal; it is rare for a child to find employment. No one wants to employ a child due to the fear of committing a crime. Therefore, a child will devote himself to work whenever an opportunity comes. On the other hand, the employer enjoys cheap labor. Due to their desperation, children will not demand higher pay. Knowing that the action is illegal, no one will insist for higher pay. In other words, the employer has a higher power, and they can control the child to the extent they wish (Kirst-Ashman, 2011). Therefore, the business is enjoying child labor. It is a way of minimizing costs while maximizing profits leading to a higher level of success.

Can the problem be solved? Both parties involved in the child labor problem are beneficiaries and thus why no one is willing to quit. Apart from the laws imposed what other actions can the government take to stop child labor? According to Hindman 2002, the largest percentage of the children involved in child labor is from the poor communities. Most of these children get engaged in child labor as they seek for some income to buy food, clothes and other essential needs that their parents are not able to prove. This is among the issues the government needs to take into consideration. A child will have the desire for better meals, good clothing, and shelter and even education just like any other human being. They will, therefore, do everything it takes to have such needs satisfied. If a child is provided with good and sufficient food, clothing, education, recreation and leisure, they will rarely have the desired for work. For simplicity, the government needs to ensure that the benefits derived by a child from working do not exceed the benefits derived from not working.

On the other hand, employers are using child labor due to the higher level of expenditure associated with skilled and qualified workers. The employer’s aim is to maximize profits, and they will seek for cheap labor other than paying vast sums of money to the so-called skilled and qualified workers. What can the government do? Among the actions that can be helpful is to employ some measures to lower the cost of labor. Just like the government has imposed the minimum wage law to protect workers, there should also be a maximum wage law to protect employers. The employer will be in a position to afford the legal workers and do away with the children. In fact, children will rarely produce quality work. Children are not trained nor do they have the required knowledge for work. If the cost of affording skilled workers is reduced, employers will not have the desire for child labor (Thomas & Iding, 2012). The benefits of using child labor will be lower than the benefits associated with the skilled and qualified workers. Therefore both the child and the employer will not have a reason to engage in child labor and hence, a solution to the problem.

Limitations of theoretical explanation

Businesses will always prefer cheap labor

Child labor is viewed as a business opportunity. Businesses, and especially at the startup level will always prefer cheap labor irrespective of the cost associated with it. Start-up businesses are mostly associated with casual work and they do need professionals. In fact, they cannot afford to pay skilled and qualified workers. In this way, the employer will not cease to offer some work to a child who is willing to work (Hindman, 2002).  Therefore, the assumption that reducing the cost of labor can solve the problem cannot be realistic in such situations. This is among the reasons why the problem still exists irrespective of the various measures the government has put in place.

Human beings will always be attracted to additional income

Another challenge is that people will always be drawn to extra revenues. Irrespective of the other benefits provided, a few children will still be found in child labor. It is not that they are forced but the children together with their parents enjoy it by having some additional income ((Thomas & Iding, 2012).  As a result, the child will seek for opportunities to gain some extra benefits whenever they find a time. It is, therefore, a challenge to the government as it seeks to completely eliminate the child labor problem.


Child labor is among the leading social problems in the society. Children are involved in cheap labor while employers enjoy minimizing costs. Several measures have been put in place, but the problem persists. According to the social exchange theory, both the child and the employer are beneficiaries of child labor. The child enjoys the extra income while the employer enjoys cheap labor. The government needs to increase the benefits of not getting associated with child labor to exceed the benefits associated with child labor as a way of solving the problem. However, these proposed solutions can only minimize the problem, but people will still get engaged in child labor. Employers will always enjoy cheap labor while the children will always enjoy the extra income. Therefore, according to the social exchange theory, it is hard to obtain a perfect solution for the child labor problem.


Hindman, H. D. (2002). Child labor: An American history. Armonk NY: M.E. Sharpe

Kirst-Ashman, K. K. (2011). Human behavior in the macro social environment: An empowerment approach to understanding communities, organizations, and groups. Australia: Brooks/Cole.

Thomas, R. M., & Iding, M. K. (2012). Explaining conversations: A developmental social exchange theory. Lanham: Jason Aronson.

April 26, 2023

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