employment and disadvantaged teens

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.

7 Responses to “employment and disadvantaged teens”

  1. November 22, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Great points (and love your list of “desires” for your earned money).


  2. November 22, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    I agree totally with you. But I’m confused about why the woman would write that letter. She has an Indian name which would indicate that she is aware of realities in India. Her initial thought to ensure the girl studies, etc., is quite enlightened and she should have gone with it because, yes, it’s highly likely the girl won’t do as well elsewhere. Personally, I think the best way for her to deal with her “guilt” would be to make her son do some work. But the reality is that she is probably pushing him to get into a top university.

  3. November 22, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    I agree with you, such a missed opportunity. She might have been the only caring person to come along for awhile in this young girl’s life. I sure hope not though.

  4. November 22, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    For many people it’s easier to avoid guilt feelings rather than working through them. That’s my gut reaction to why she decided not to hire the girl. She’d have to look at her every day, and every day would have to second-guess herself as to what she should or should not ask the girl to do. She might very easily find herself being too lenient because of her guilt, and not asking the girl to do things that she might think the girl should do because of her guilt. She would probably end up feeling resentful because she’s paying the girl to do a job that she feels uncomfortable asking her to do. Not trying to defend her, but guilt can be confusing and difficult to deal with, especially when you’re looking at what makes you feel guilty on a daily basis. The choice to avoid it takes the pressure off.

    I too had jobs during the summer when I was in my teens. I baby-sat, mowed lawns, washed cars. When I got older worked in a “Sunday Palace” that also served grilled sandwiches (hamburgers, hotdogs and grilled cheese) and that was after school a few nights a week, and on weekends. We (teenagers) did everything, all the cooking, the sundaes, waiting tables, clean-up. Later I got a part-time retail job (maybe my junior year of high school?). My parents encouraged us to take jobs during the summer, set a goal for what we wanted to buy, and make enough money to meet that goal. We were also required to put 10% of everything we made into our savings accounts.

    However, having a regular, every-day, after-school job is a little different, to my mind. But if it’s the norm in that society, and the girl could benefit, and if she’s going to find work elsewhere, then I think the woman was right to ask the questions and try to consider whether she could benefit the girl in some way. That she ultimately was unable to hire THIS girl doesn’t mean she didn’t learn something from the process, and perhaps down the line she will figure out how to overcome her guilt and hire such a person in the future, and help her out with her scholastic aspirations, while also benefitting her by being a fair employer. Sometimes lessons don’t “take” right away, but planting the seed leads to right action later. She might have missed this particular opportunity, but surely the opportunity will continue to present itself in her life and she will have other chances to do this.

  5. November 22, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    Although this is clearly not a simple issue to resolve, I also agree with you. It seems to me that the potential employer has just moved the problem out of her house to somewhere where she won’t encounter it and can therefore forget about it. I concur that there’s nothing intrinsically evil about young people working for money. It’s surely exploitative work situations that are the problem – at any worker age.

  6. 6 charmstep
    November 22, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    What annoys me most is the woman’s claim that she “would feel” guilty while the girl works and her son does not. Guilt is something people Choose to feel because it makes them appear to be better, or more caring, which, of course, is a load of BS. Guilt is a useless emotion that paralyzes people. In this case, potential feelings of guilt stopped this woman from doing a kind and caring thing. And this may be a cultural issue, but if she feels so badly about the girl working, she could do more of the work herself, and/or tell her son to get off his lazy butt and do some “age appropriate” chores as well. What’s more important here – this woman’s ability to help this girl help herself and her family, or the Possibility that this woman will feel guilty? I agree that this was a lost opportunity. I hope she realizes this and takes another chance to do some good.

  7. November 23, 2010 at 5:01 am

    I agree with Julee Celeste.

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