Today, 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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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.
(clip art image)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.