Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1763:
CHILD LABOR

by John H. Lienhard

paper boyToday, let's talk about child labor. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Child labor is an unmistakable mark of an emerging economy -- a way station on the road out of poverty. It arises when a country finds that it can leave poverty by producing cheap consumer goods.

I don't regard child labor is an a priori evil. I worked long hours after school as an early teenager, and I found great pride and well-being in it. But, when the engines of greed catch up with children, the young become appallingly defenseless victims.

In the early nineteenth century, Massachusetts' Lowell Mills hired poor late-teen-age girls, boarded them, put them in a controlled environment, and offered church and schooling to boot. It was benevolent paternalism and the beginning of American industrialization. Naturally, it makes us nervous. Yet, for a while, it was an improved life for most of those girls.

On the other hand, I've just read an 1880 article by one James Henderson, a British factory inspector. Henderson is reporting on recent government wrangling over the form of child-labor laws.

He describes the ongoing attempt to cut the working day down to ten hours for children thirteen to eighteen. People also want to reduce the working day for children under thirteen, from eight to six-and-a-half hours, with the rest of the day for schooling.

The British had come a long way by then. In 1832, a report had shown that children were being sold to factories and made to work sixteen hours a day. The Factory Acts of 1833 and 1844 had set some limits, but the situation remained horrific. Now reformers were trying to cut teenage working hours to no more than twelve hours a day, five days a week, with a mere nine hours on Saturday. They also wanted protective fencing around dangerous equipment.

So many issues surfaced. Some wanted to protect women up to the age of twenty-one. Another problem was the quality of that half-day of education. Many factories simply told workers who'd had an arm or a leg torn off by machinery that they were now teachers. Henderson also points to growing concern that education would be put in the hands of the Church of England. Many factory owners were Wesleyans or Unitarians, and they didn't like that at all.

In the end, Henderson reports that legislation is still pending, while special interests haggle. He also includes a remarkable throwaway sentence in which he credits the Factory Act of 1844 for leading to compulsory education for all British children.

Great Britain was a wealthy nation who'd led the western world in getting rid of slavery. But, along the way to wealth, she'd replaced one form of slavery with another, and this one had pernicious economic staying power.

I doubt that we can, or even should, decouple child labor from economic emergence. But nothing can be more dehumanizing than turning a blind eye to the evil that lurks behind it -- greed ready to wrap its arms around the children of the poor.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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J. Henderson, Industrial Legislation.-X. Great Industries of Great Britain, Vol. III, (London: Cassell Peter & Galpin, 1877-1880), pp. 32-35.

For more on the history of British child-labor legislation, see: http://www.mackinac.org/3879

And for some thoughts on the complexities of the child-labor situation in emerging nations, see: http://www.cato.org/dailys/10-08-02.html

In my own case, I worked only three-and-a-half hours each evening after school as a bicycle delivery boy for a pharmacy when I was thirteen; and I worked only about five-and-a-half hours each evening as a dishwasher when I was sixteen. At those levels, both jobs did more for my self-esteem than they did for my wallet.


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The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.