Informal Institutions: Child Labour

By Damini Sitaram

Helmke and Levitsky (2004) discuss how the importance of informal institutions has been marginalized due to the focus on formal institutions. Formal institutions are easier to observe as they are enforced through official channels and are not ambiguous in language. Informal institutions are difficult; as there are no official channels to enforce them, they are often unwritten and ambiguous, and there is no objective point of origin, it is difficult to categorize an ‘informal institution’. Helmke and Levitsky describe how in some cases, similar situations and formal institutions can lead to two different outcomes due to informal institutions. An example of this is the child labour law.

Laws banning child labour are universal, and many countries have legislation that prohibits the use of minors for hard labour. However, when doing a comparative case study, it is often so that the enforcement in one case is more successful than the other. In Bangladesh, children often work in exploitative conditions, whereas in France, there is little to no risk of child labour and them being exploited.

Even though the legislation, the formal rule that child labour is illegal, the outcomes are different in Bangladesh and France. This might be due to the informal institutions: living in a poor country, Bangladeshis find it normal for every household member to have a job, including children. The French, living in a developed country, have placed emphasis on the child’s right to education.  

Sending children to work is an informal institution, as it is often induced from the social environment whether it is accepted or not. It is not pursued through official channels and is ambiguous, and therefore, in each case, has a different effect on the formal institution and changes the outcome.