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Child Labor
A Brief History

Child Labor
  • Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong... Volume Vol. 1 (by )
  • The Water-Babies (by )
  • Helen Fleetwood (by )
  • Child Labor and the Republic (by )
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Only in the latter half of the 20th century did the concept of a carefree childhood emerge as a right of all children rather than just the privileged few. Until then, parents and businesses viewed children as an abundant, renewable source of cheap labor. Low income and rural families especially relied upon the labor of children to contribute to put food on the table.

Laws in practically every country considered children, like women, to be chattel. With no legal status, children could be bought and sold. In ancient Rome, pederasty thrived for a short period on the trade of young boys. Although illegal in many countries, human trafficking today maintains a robust trade in young girls sold into domestic service or as sex slaves. On modern farms, children still help to take care of livestock and to plant and harvest crops. In 2013, UNICEF and the International Labor Organization estimated an estimated 168 million children aged 5 to 17 were involved in child labor.

The Victorian era and the rise of the Industrial Age witnessed the rapid and exponential increase in the exploitation of children in notoriously poor conditions and in child mortality rates. The average age at which children started work in the early 1800s was 10 years old, less in industrialized areas where small, nimble bodies were needed to crawl within machinery to clear obstructions in the mechanisms.
Widespread reports as to the horrible conditions and long hours suffered by employed children spurred Victorian era authors to protest, most notably Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charles Dickens. With his family in debtor’s prison, Dickens himself was apprenticed at the age of 12 in a blacking factory. Karl Marx of communist fame also decried child labor, as evidence by his 1844 publication The Conditions of the Working Classes in England. Charles Kingsley’s fairy tale The Water Babies protested the plight of children employed as chimney sweeps. Frances Trollope’s book Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy and Charlotte Elizabeth’s book Helen Fleetwood brought to light the cruelties of child labor to the largely oblivious middle and upper classes.

Beginning with England’s Factory Act in 1833 and the Mines Act in 1842, various social and political groups organized to restrict child labor. In 1907, the American Academy of Political and Social Science published a treatise titled Child Labor and the Republic on the topic of child labor legislation. This organization, dedicated to passing legislation to protect children, found their efforts stymied by poverty and the inability of indigent parents to make any substantive change. 
The report also noted that families who sent their children into the labor market did so because of economic necessity. The choices often came down to eat or starve.

The Academy also promoted compulsory school attendance and “the exclusion of children from certain occupations dangerous to health or morals.”

Dedicated activists debunked common and pervasive assumptions on the benefits of child labor, citing empirical evidence collected from communities that had already enacted restrictions upon child labor in addition to compulsory education. These anecdotes quoted the beneficial intervention of public and private entities that provided economic support to struggling families that would have otherwise been forced to hire out or sell their children.

Today, news headlines reveal the dark underbelly of child labor in developing countries. Bangladesh, many sub-Saharan countries in Africa, Thailand, and other countries find both adults and children exploited by the greedy consumerism of “first world” nations and the desperate needs of survival. Child labor, one realizes, never disappears, nor do the efforts to fight the exploitation of children.

By Karen M. Smith

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