Imagine if you will, walking down the streets of London in the year 1800. At the height, if its industrial age the city’s buildings have all turned into an unseemly grey hue from the factories nearby. You look up at the sky and see thick fog engulfing the city in a tight blanket for as far as the eye could see.
Yet, you are happily willing to accept the pollution, for after all England was ushered into the age of steam engines and the accompanying material wealth due to its zealous pursuit of industrialization. England had suffered miserably in the 1700s from high unemployment, and the new steam factories offered an excellent chance to turn things around.
Or did it?
Imagine also, after a nice meal in one of London’s restaurants, you decide to take a walk around in the city. After all, the streets which were broken down in the last century have just been paved over, allowing carts and people to start driving and walking safely. Its 8 PM and your legs take you to a small weaving workshop, where you see tens of 12 years old children file out into the streets. The children are going home for the day, only to sleep a meager amount of hours so they can wake up the next day at the crack of dawn to toil away their soft skin into callused hands.
While the industrial revolution taking Europe by a storm was hailed as the primary engine of economic abundance, factories often had an ugly underbelly that revealed the need for national and international laws to regulate their operations. Namely working condition and child labor.
Many children were sent there from workhouses or orphanages to work long hours in hot, dusty and dangerous conditions, where their tiny bodies would be utilized to crawl through narrow spaces between fast-moving machinery. It was not uncommon for children to have a 12-hour working day, and accidents happened frequently.
By 1810, about 2 million school-age children were working 50- to 70-hour weeks. Most came from poor families. Poverty stricken families unable to provide for their children would sometimes turn them over to a mill or factory owner, where they would earn a meager salary for endless hours of painstaking and often dangerous labor.
Are you outraged? Trust me you are not alone…
Britain was the first to pass laws regulating child labor. From 1802 to 1878, a series of laws gradually came to the scene with the aim of shortening working hours, improving working conditions, and raising the age at which children could work. Other European countries adopted similar laws.
However, a law is often only the first step towards changing cultural attitudes. In often cases, culture might actually take more time to catch up with a legal framework, than the other way around. In the case of child labor, we must always bear in mind that in the 1800s, when such laws first started emerging, the global scene probably considered child labor as means out of poverty and degradation for many families, who could not otherwise feed their children. As the example of Britain shows, this attitude was shared by both developed and developing countries alike.
Moreover, we need to pay close attention to the reasons behind the regulatory framework, and to look deeper into a more comprehensive picture of beneficial child employment. The law was clearly motivated by protecting children in dangerous circumstances, as well as protecting children from dropping out of school at an early age.
However, what happens then to the kids who help their parents on their farms, or in their stores? What becomes of high school youth who are willing to work as to make some extra money during school vacations? For me personally, I am a massive fan of apprenticeship systems that helped youth get on-the-job training and learn valuable skills that are often neglected by the education system.
The answer to all of that, was a compromise. Without completely eliminating all forms of child employment, the member nations of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the United Nations ratified three key documents that shape the global understanding of child labor, namely the ILO minimum Age Convention No, 138 of 1973, ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor of 1999, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990.
The ILO website summarizes the child labor international regulatory framework in the following table:
The minimum age at which children can start work.
Possible exceptions for developing countries
Any work which is likely to jeopardize children’s physical, mental or moral heath, safety or morals should not be done by anyone under the age of 18.
(16 under strict conditions)
(16 under strict conditions)
Basic Minimum Age
The minimum age for work should not be below the age for finishing compulsory schooling, and in any case not less than 15.
Children between the ages of 13 and 15 years old may do light work, as long as it does not threaten their health and safety, or hinder their education or vocational orientation and training.
13 – 15
12 – 14
There are two interesting things to note in that table. First, the possible exceptions for developing countries column. The UN is made up of sovereign states who cannot be coerced into ratifying documents they believe is not in the best interest of serving their respective cultural norms and practices. Second, the definition of light work above clearly stated as work that does not interfere with school enrollment. As such, it would allow youth to pursue vocational and apprenticeship training programs after school hours, babysitting to make money, or merely help their parents in their stores.
At the end of the day, while child labor is still a widespread problem that affects millions of children and families across the globe, it is essential before we start criticizing every form of child employment out there, to understand the legal framework against which the system operates. After we have that clear picture in our minds, only then can we debate the merits and downsides of the existing system.
The rationale behind this legal framework is an understanding of the undeniable fact that some kids, somewhere out there, need the skills that come from labor, and sometimes, do need the small amount of money that comes with it. After all, nothing could teach discipline and responsibility than helping your dad run the family business at a tender age, or helping your mom sow the fields that your family depends on for sustenance.