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The 1910s was a glorious “Coming of Age” period for the United States. We were emerging as a bonafide industrial powerhouse and dazzled the world with our new machinery and inventions. Immigrants poured into the country in search of economic opportunities and the American Dream. In 1910, 40% of the population in New York was foreign born and 38% was first generation. Factories abounded and business owners knew naught but profits.
Many of new immigrants did not know English and even less of American Democracy. They eked out a living at these factories that dotted the cities. They worked long hours and endured miserable working conditions. Early capitalism precluded notions of social responsibility by corporations. There was no concept of worker safety – that would cut into bottom lines. Few of the workers could afford childcare, so the younger ones often wandered the streets. When the wages are below-subsistence and there are many mouths to feed, everyone is forced to work – even the children. And what better way to cut costs for the factory owners than to employ child labor.
In 1910, only 48% of kids in Rhode Island attended school. Education, leisure and play were the privilege of the wealthy minority. And only these children had the opportunity to really enjoy their childhood.
Life for many of the “other” kids was confined to the walls of manufacturing factories all across the cities of America. They worked in cigar factories, textile mills and packing factories. Technology had made the machinery easy to operate especially in the textile industry e.g.: the Arkwright Machines. One adult supervising a number of children meant larger profits. They were even small enough to crawl under textile machinery to oil it. They were locked in for long hours and beaten if they fell asleep. Crowded and unhygienic conditions often resulted in respiratory and other ailments. The glorious Industrial Revolution was in full force in the United States!
Social Reformers like Jane Addams recognized the issues that plagued the polyglot society of the 1910s. Though she was from a wealthy background, she chose to do something about it. The establishment of Hull House in Chicago provided an oasis for the immigrant population. For the children, this meant day care, chance at an education and the childhood pursuit of play. Her efforts resulted in Chicago’s first public playground and the building of more schools. And she worked toward passing laws that made child labor illegal and the establishment of juvenile courts.
It is now the year 2010 – a hundred years later. We have come a long way. The United States has passed and implemented child labor laws. The Fair Labor Standards Act restricts employment and abuse of children in the US. It also does much to protect their educational opportunities and restricts their employment in hazardous jobs. It restricts the number of hours children under 16 can work. There is even a separate enforcement division called Wage and Hour Division.
We have cleaner and safer working conditions now. Our society and economy went from strength to strength and we became a global superpower. We lead the world in the search and discovery of new technology. As we moved to fresher pastures, much of the work we used to do, has moved to other countries. For example, most of the manufacturing has moved out of the United States to emerging economies like China.
The US continues to be the world’s largest consumer with its enormous purchasing power. The illusion of a vast virtual income is further driven by the existence of endless credit. Capitalism is based on supply and demand. There are many countries willing to produce and sell goods that satisfy the insatiable appetite of America. And we also insist on getting them cheaper and cheaper too.
The image of those ragged American children working in textile mills have become mere photos in our history textbooks. But we have just replaced them with the unseen images of millions of non-American children in other countries. Have we just transferred the social injustices of our past onto other countries?
Have we as a society, really considered the consequences of our incessant consumerism. Did we ever stop to consider, for example, that the expensive diamonds – “the gift of love” - that we wear, could be the toil of child labor in the diamond mines of Africa?
We cannot put on blinders and pretend that our history or our future is not closely interlinked with that of the rest of the world. After all, immigrants from all over the world make up this country.
For corporations in a capitalistic society, the bottom line is still a determining factor. As environment, labor and safety laws became more stringent in the United States; the multi-national corporations simply moved the jobs overseas to countries where the laws were less rigid or not enforced as well. Child labor is considered illegal in many countries today, thanks to efforts of organizations such as the International Labor Organization and UNICEF, but is poorly enforced in most.
In 2008, as many as 1000 school age children were found working in the manufacturing zones in the Guangdong Province of China (near Hong Kong). Labor recruiters are believed to have lured thousands of children away from the poverty stricken Liangshan region of China. Ironically stricter enforcement of adult labor laws and inflation had made these manufacturing sectors turn to illegal child labor to stay competitive. They produce much of the cheap toys and electronics that kids in the US enjoy.
In 2004, some 480 children, some as young as 5-6 yrs old, were rescued from embroidery factories in New Delhi, India. These sweatshops produced clothing for GAP Kids in the US. Surely this is not what we had in mind when we started to outsource. Similar scenarios of child labor have arisen with Firestone Inc at their metal plantation in Liberia. H&M, a worldwide fashion retail chain has been accused of using cotton from Siberia, where children under 10 often work the fields.
The sad truth is that child labor is common in many parts of the world – in agriculture, mining, domestic work, industry and informal sectors. They often endure cruel and harsh conditions. While, we in the United States have fought against it, ironically we may in part be encouraging it in other parts of the world.
The US has put in much effort, by passing laws such as the Child Labor Deterrence Act in 1993 (Harkin's Bill). This curbs the import of goods that uses child labor in any stage of its production. But is boycotting such goods, really the best solution? UNICEF found that thousands of child laborers lost their jobs in the garment industries of Bangladesh as a result of this Act. Driven by poverty, they simply moved to more hazardous jobs like stone-crushing. The UNICEF, IPEC (International Program for Elimination of Child Labor – A division of ILO) and other non-profits are now trying to rehabilitate these kids by slowly phasing them into schools.
Sometimes it happens right under the nose of our democracy. In 2008, Agriprocessors, a meat packaging company in Kentsville, Iowa, was charged with over 9000 child labor law violations, involving 32 minors. Of these 7 were under the age of 16. One always hears stories of sweatshops right in the US where immigrants work long and grueling hours for little pay. Who is to say that minors are not in that group that works in those very sweatshops?
The reasons for child labor remain the same whether it is 1910 or 2010. Abject poverty drives entire family to work. There isn’t a parent in the world that does not want their child to have an education or enjoy the pursuits of childhood. And it is economic conditions that make parents willingly or unwillingly send their kids off to work as they depend on the additional income. Perhaps there are no educational opportunities available to that child in that region and the alternative is working.
Discovery and rehabilitation of child workers is a good short term solution. So is raising public awareness and corporate responsibility by passing and implementing laws. But the real long term solution to worldwide child labor is really to increase the standard of living in all countries and across all strata of society. Only then can child labor truly become mere images in history books across the world.
"Government and Immigration." 1910's Government and Politics. Gale Cengage, 1996. eNotes.com. 2006. 15 Jan, 2010 http://www.enotes.com/1910-government-politics-american-decades/government-immigration
Whaples, Robert. "Child Labor in the United States". EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. October 7, 2005. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/whaples.childlabor
Slater, Samuel. “Father or the American Industrial Revolution”. Jan 15, 2010 http://www.woonsocket.org/slaterchildlabor.html
United States Department of Labor – Youth and Labor Jan 2010 http://www.dol.gov/dol/topic/youthlabor/index.htm
The History Place: Child Labor in America 1908-1912 http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/childlabor/
Hakim, Joy. “A History of US – Book 7, An Age of Extremes.”
The New York Times. 5/10/2008. Child Labor Rings Reach China’s Distant Villages http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/10/world/asia/10CHINA.html
The New York Times. 11/15/2007. GAP Moves to recover from Child Labor Scandal http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/15/business/worldbusiness/15iht-gap.1.8349422.html
The Iowa Independent. 9/9/2008 Agriprocessors charged with over 9000 child labor law violations http://iowaindependent.com/5235/agriprocessors-charged-with-9000-child-labor-law-violations
United States Dept of Labor – Bangladesh Jan 2010 http://www.dol.gov/ilab/media/reports/iclp/sweat/bangladesh.htm
Rahman, Mufizur et al. Child Labor in Bangladesh: A Critical Appraisal of Harkin's Bill and the MOU-Type Schooling Program. Journal of Economic Issues, Vol. 33, 1999 http://www.questia.com/googleScholar.qst;jsessionid=LSQGQQHSJWZdNKHLwp0J6G0yHyCrmYLv5dpmvYMZRLjhP2fBvhvf!-852814118!1201110973?docId=5001865348
ILO, Investing in every child: An economic study of the Costs and Benefits of Eliminating Child Labor. Dec 2003 http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/---webdev/documents/publication/wcms_071311.pdf
ILO, Diamonds are Forever, But Not the Lives of Child Workers. Nov 2006. http://ihscslnews.org/view_article.php?id=162