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Confronting Child Labour

Confronting child labour, then and now

The Victorian chimney sweep in Britain, the first industrial nation, was once an even bigger symbol of inhumanity than the bonded child labourer of Pakistan and India today. There are lessons we can learn from the past about how to combat child labour – but there are also myths to discard.

Children have always worked. But the nature of their work has changed according to the social conditions of the time – and so has our notion of ‘childhood’. In peasant societies children have always participated in the working life of the family – on a seasonal basis in agriculture and more constantly in domestic tasks, as shown by the tapestry below, from ninth-century Europe. The tasks recorded as having been given to children in sixteenth-century Spain – collecting firewood, herding livestock, helping with ploughing, collecting pests from crops – are not dissimilar from those still allocated to children in rural areas of the developing world today.

Children have also always participated in light industry – and as industrial activity increased in eighteenth-century Europe, so the economic opportunities increased too. People in general were rarely troubled by the sight of children working – rather the contrary. When the author Daniel Defoe toured England and reported on what he had seen, far from being concerned at the sight of four-year-olds at work in Lancashire’s cotton industry he was delighted that they were finding useful employment. The philosopher John Locke also wrote reports on how to deal with the children of the poor: ‘The children of the labouring people are an ordinary burthen to the parish and are usually maintained in idleness, so that their labour also is lost to the public till they are 12 or 14 years old.’ The conclusion drawn by Locke (left) was that poor children should be put to work at three years old with a bellyful of bread daily, supplemented in cold weather by ‘a little warm water-gruel’.

Locke’s views were not extraordinary at the time: childhood had never up to this point been seen as a cordoned-off area of innocence but rather as a period in which children learned skills that made them employable – which is exactly the same view held in Bangladesh today according to the article on Page 12. The modern Western idea of childhood is a relatively recent creation which emerged from the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The conception of childhood by the poets Blake and Wordsworth as a period of innocence and visionary imagination was nothing short of revolutionary – and Blake directly counterposed to this the bitter experience of child labourers in an increasingly industrial England.

It was another Romantic poet, Coleridge, who coined the term ‘white slaves’ when he referred in 1819 to ‘our poor little white slaves, the children in our cotton factories’. By the 1830s the phrase was in common usage and people routinely contrasted the humanitarian concern for the children of slaves abroad with the apparent indifference to the suffering of child labourers at home. The Factory Commission of 1833 revealed that children were often employed from the age of six and made to work 14-to-16-hour days during which they were kept awake by beating.

The conditions in mines were even worse, and the inclusion of line drawings in the 1842 report on mines profoundly shocked the Victorian public. These helped produce the world’s first serious legislation against child labour – but even this only banned children under nine from working in factories and those under ten from the mines. The idea that child labour in Britain was abolished almost single-handedly by the sterling efforts of Conservative politician Lord Shaftesbury has crystallized into a national myth which still affects attitudes to child labour all over the world.

It was not legislation and inspection that ended widespread child labour in industrial countries such as the US (the photo above shows a cotton mill in South Carolina in 1900) – the first truly effective federal law against child labour did not come until 1938 – so much as economics and education. First, as industry became increasingly mechanized there was less demand for child labour anyway. But just as important in eradicating mass child labour was the provision of universal education, which in Britain was made compulsory for children under ten in 1880 and free of school fees in 1892 – and the school-leaving age has risen steadily throughout the industrialized world in this century. Making school compulsory did not automatically mean children turned up – the process took decades. But if history teaches us that there is a single mechanism most likely to reduce hazardous child labour then compulsory primary education would be it.

All but three governments in the world (the US, Somalia and the Cook Islands) have now ratified the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – the fullest embodiment of the modern view of childhood. Article 28 requires governments which have ratified to ‘make primary education compulsory and available free to all’. It only remains for them to put their money where their mouths are – and strike a significant blow against hazardous child labour in the process.

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