In “The Ethicist” column of the November 5 New York Times, a woman living in Mumbai, India asks Randy Cohen if it is ethical to employ a 14-year old girl as household help. The prospective employer recognizes that most children of this age, in this country, will seek such employment, and admits that she would be extremely considerate of the girl’s age in the tasks which she would require the girl to complete. Her concern is twofold: 1) should she “encourage” what she considers to be exploitation by employing the girl? and 2), how she would feel about this girl working while her son is “studying and playing”?
Cohen advises the writer that such employment could only be seen as an advantage, especially if she, the employer, demonstrated fairness in encouraging the girl to go to school and complete her homework, and if she stuck to her commitment to only asking her to complete age-appropriate tasks.
According to the article:
Jacqueline Novogratz, C.E.O. of the Acumen Fund, a nonprofit that takes an entrepreneurial approach to combating global poverty, suggests: “The employer could help the girl pay for school fees so that she can attend school and then have her come afterward to help clean the house. The combination of part-time work with full-time schooling provides the girl’s family with a sense of dignity, and it gives the girl greater choice in her life.”
Despite this, the woman later writes to Cohen confessing that she did not hire the girl, despite the likelihood that the girl would work elsewhere, and potentially not be treated as well as the woman would have treated her, out of concern for the guilt she would feel watching the girl work while her son was not.
I have a lot of trouble with this decision, for two main reasons.
First of all, what’s wrong with the idea of a 14-year old working? I had part-time jobs at 14; had actually grown up working on my father’s farm from a VERY young age, but worked at an ice-cream shop in the summers so I could have some spending money. The motivation for this young girl to work so she can help her impoverished family is much more noble than my desire for a pair of Adidas sneakers (white, with green stripes), a new pair of Levi’s, and Heart (the one with Crazy on You on it) and REO Speedwagon (You Can Tune a Piano but You Can’t Tuna Fish) albums.
Secondly, what does this have to do with the woman’s guilt? Can she really be so selfish that she can allow this to be a bigger concern than the well-being and potential opportunities available to this girl through such employment, especially if she followed Novogratz’s advice as quoted above?
And isn’t it possible that this could have been a GOOD example to her son, on all accounts?
I wish this woman could have looked a little bit further outside herself and her own superficial feelings. Much good could have been done, for many.