Child labor played a prominent role during the industrialization. A child worker was the central figure not only in both contemporary and classic accounts of the industrial revolution, but also in the early mills, mines and factories. The early conditions of work made child labor unacceptable due to the adverse conditions; however, advances in technology and work conditions demanded children at work. Clark Nardinelli argues that since child workers and their families had the option not to work and yet chose employment, it was optimal to prefer a child labor in the economic sense. There is a disagreement about whether child labor in the factories and early mills was a continuation of their involvement in domestic manufacturing and agriculture or a feature of the changing economy. Child labor was widespread in workshop and home-based industry prior to mechanization. Children’s contribution to the family income increased the living standards of the family, especially improved diets.
Decision whether or not to send children to work depended upon the wages and job opportunities of the adults. Apprenticeship played a vital role in bridging the gap between home and workplace by fostering training; however, the rising costs of living discouraged apprenticeship. According to Nardinelli, withdrawal of children from labor force saw a rise in the wages of the men and a demand for higher quality children. In the initial years, it was common for children to take up tasks, such as miners, agricultural labors and spinners equally with adults. Children were best at moving raw materials, delivering goods through distribution networks to the customers. During seasons, children fulfilled the demand in industry, agriculture and services. Children accommodated shifts, especially in transition from domestic work to factory production when no adult workers were available to work in new manufacturing plants located far from existing concentrations of population.
In the factory mills, the owners signed a contract with the children, which stated that children over five should attend the company school for a couple of hours everyday and children above twelve had to work in the mills, unless released by the superintendent. The presence of children in the mills restricted the mobility of their parents. Parents provided false statements of age in order to get employment for their children in the mills. The helper system enabled the mills to gain production from very young children to train the workforce of the future, while maintaining a direct relationship in terms of employment. Children employed in the spinning rooms of the mills did the work of doffers, sweepers and spinners. With the replacement of the modern machinery, children had to climb the spinning frames to replace bobbins. Work at the mills was continuous and involved long working hours. Though the children had ample time to rest, the work at mills retained parental control over child discipline.
There was a greedy appetite for child labor as directly commandeered by the state. The children had the opportunity to attend Sunday schools where schooling and work were a package set around specific educational objectives. School was an opportunity for the children to gain access to potential opportunities of work, which offered higher wages. The factors that were instrumental in promoting child labor were the cotton industry and the factories, which left a room for the extension and intensification of child labor. During the period of industrialization, children consisted of more than 50 percent of the workforce. There was also substantial utilization of children as young as three. The factory owners were eager to cut the labor costs to maximize their return on equipment. Crews of orphans imported by the factory owners had no other option but to work in the factories to earn their living.
Early industrial equipment was easy to handle and hence provided opportunities for children. However, children faced dreadful abuse, whippings, high accidental rate, low pay, inadequate food and sexual exploitation. The impact of child labor varied from one place to the other. In urban places, the children as well as the families took the initiative to work because they could not survive the cost of living without the additional income provided by the children. Several objections arise in the use of children in factories. Firstly, work at the factories was different from that of the traditional work. New humanitarian sentiment called attention to the problems previously ignored by the individuals. The middle class economies started devoting their attention to education, which decreased the number of working children. Also, increased public debate about child labor and interference from the government’s end promoted the concern for child labor.
Many employers could not imagine how the adult workers would survive without the assistance of the children. Workers also worried about family earnings in most of the cases. In some cases, the parents demanded their rights to dispose the children to work as per their wish. The First Factory Act of 1802 set a limitation on the maximum hours of work and took measures to improve the working conditions at mills. Public scrutiny and a sense of conscience among the employers changed the role of the children as labor. In the United States and Germany, the industrial revolution placed greater emphasis on heavy industries rather textiles, which limited the number of opportunities to employ children. Children in the United States were a source of slaves. With the onset of the twentieth century, there was an increase in the number of household chores available for children, which was the major reason for decline in child labor. In the nineteenth century, the Britain government alone issued fifteen laws opposing child labor.
Most of the laws concentrated on the exploitation of children. However, desperate parents barred children from sending to factories and were ready to accept the worse conditions to sustain the economy of their families. Early child labor laws aimed at the new types of employment related to the industrialization. The development in the child labor laws led to the prohibition of employment of very young children. Night work, hazardous work, underground work and excess working hours were other major concerns regarding child labor. Over time, the child labor laws led to the gradual increase of wages and decrease in the number of working hours. The laws slowly expanded to the economic sector. For example, the United States restricted hazardous work for all the children under the age of eighteen. Child labor legislatures also enforced factory inspections. The acts also drew a line between the children, young people and adults. Some laws demanded compulsory education to children for two hours per day.
Various employers and employer associations opposed the child labor laws as they feared that the government might intervene with the labor market. The employers also felt the concern for the reduction in productivity due to the adoption of child welfare policies. The prohibition of child labor ran into conflicts with the economic interests of nations. Industrial sector and agricultural sector dependent on child labor suffered great losses. The prohibition of child labor also reflected the organization of state power. In the United States, the decline of child labor was due less to the enactment of statutes banning the practice of child labor. The child labor laws enforced in the later years made sure that the children did not work and the parents took enough care of them. Foster parents also made sure to provide education and fulfill the physical needs of the children. The United Nations defined the Rights of Children, which further eased the lives of children. Technological innovations also played a major role in the decline of child labor.
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