Working Children: Country Trends

Figure 1.--At the turn of the 20th century, Federal child labor laws did not yet protect children. This was espcislly true in the South which also did not have mndatory school attendance laws. This girl was beginning work at a textile mill in Newton, South Carolina. More than 10 percent of mill workers were children under 12 years of age. The situation was even worse for agricultural laborers. This photograph would have been taken about 1910. Source: Lewis W. Hine.

HBC does not yet have detailed information on the child labor pattern by country, but has begun to address the topic. Here the countries we are most familiar with are England and America. England as far as we know was the first country to address the problm of child labor. This is understandable as it was in England that the Industrial Revolution began. Charles Dickens had a major role in prmoting the movement to limit child labor. Parlimentary investigations led to laws limiting child labor. Developments in France and Germany are also very important, but we have little information at this time. We have some limited country information in the various wotk area sections. We will eventually cross reference these on the country pages.


America, Latin


Child labor in the private sector has been substantially eliminated since the Revolution, although this has occurred along with a massive decline in the economy so many Cuban children are less well of than they were before the Revolution. Child labor, however, still exists. And it is the state who not only conducts, but requires children to work. Children enrolled in rural schools over the age of 11 years are expected to participate everyday for a few hours in manual labor. Students in technical schools and university preparatory schools are expected to devote 30 to 45 days per year primarily to agricultural work. This is almost entirely free mannual labor for highly inefficient state farms. The children involve do not learn important skills that further their education or qualifications for future jobs. Cuba passed a new labor law (1997). This provided for 15 abnd 16 year old Cuban children receiving training towards a job or filling in for absentee workers. Unfortunately there are few real econonic opportunities in Cuba's moribund economy.


Many Mexican children worked from an early age, especially in rural areas. They were assigned a variety of tasks. This commonly varied by gender. Often boys worked as shepherds (pastorcillo). Mexico until after the Revolution was a largely aricultural country. Most of the population lived in rural areas and worked on farms. Children worked in both family fincas and rancheros as well as on haciendas. Most children worked on farms rather than attending schools. There were not even schools in most rural areas. And the rural population was lsrgely iliterate. We are also surprised with the number of authors who associate child labor with the capitalism and the industrial revolution. In fact it was only with the jindustrial revolution that child lsbpr began to be seen as a social problem. Although not as extensive, there is also considerable child labor in urban areas. Authorities did not begin to address child labor untikl the Revolution. The establishment of a comprehensive public school system has helped reduce the problem, but it has not been eliminated. This is primarily in the "grey" unregulated sectors of the economy. This continues to be a problem in Mexico.

America, North


United States

Many of the Founding Fathers led by Jefferson saw America's future as a great agrarian republic based upon the small farmer. It was, however, Hamilton's vision of America as a mercantile economy that proved to the more astute assessment. Someof the worst conditions experienced in Britain during the early 19th century did not occur in America because of the more limited industrial devekpment and the beconing Frontier offered opportunity that made it difficult to oppress labor, except in the slae-holding South. After the Civil War (1861-65) as American industry expanded , the Frontier began to close, and immigrants willing to work for low wages poured into America, working conditions became an increasingly severe problem. As in Europe, conditions for children were especially horendous. Only in the late 19th century did child labor begin to become an important national issue.




Most Japanese children until the late-19th century worked. Only aristocratic children, mostly boys, were educated in schools. Here or information is limited, but most children worked. And because the country was larfely agricultural, most boys worked in the fields with their fathers. Other boys learned trades at the side of their father, After the Meiji Restoration and the end of the Shiogunate (1867), the new Imperial Government founded a European-sty;le education system (1870s). Gradually compulsory attendance laws and child labor laws began restricting child labor. This was at first primarily implemnented in urban areas. We do not have details on child labor in the 19th and early-20th century. We believe that child labor was extensive, especially in rural areas. One report indicates, "In 1894, Japan exported 50 million pounds of tea, three-fourths of which came to the United States .... The labor of picking of this immense crop is performed largely by children ..." Japan's post-World War II democratic constitution bans child labor (Article 27).


Child labor in Europe was a major problem, but contrary to the popular modern belief, it was not a creation of the Industrial Revolution. Child labor was basically universal in medieval Europe and Rome as wll as the ancient civilizations that preceeeded the medieval era. In these agricultural societies almost all children from a very early age worked with the exception of the narrow elite class. With the industrial Revolution as capitalism made Eurpean countrues grew richer, the rising middle class began to see child labor as a social poblem. And it was the most important capitalist countries of Western Europe that first began to outlaw child labor while child labor continued to be prevalent in the more afarian and less indiustrialiZed countries of Eastrn and souithern Europe. Here the history is somewhat complicated because agrrain interests (often meabning large land owners) continued to have enormopuis influence, even in heavily industrialized countries like England and Germany. We have been able to find information about child labor on some countries, but still have limited information on many European countries. We would be interested in any information that readers can add concerning child labor in their countries.



Indonesia, at the time the Dutch East Indies, was a basically agricultural country until after World War II. Indonesian children, like children throughout the underdevloped world, worked from a very early age. The boys worked with their fathers in the fields. Rice was the principal crop. In the villages boys worked with their fathers in artisan shops. Girls mostly helped their mothers with household chores. Dutch misionaries began founding schools in the 19th century, but only small numbers of children attended. The Dutch Government eventually began opening schools, but on a limited basis. Most children, espcially in the countryside worked until independence was achieved (1949) abd the Indionesian Government began building a public school system. It might be thought that this was the result of Dutch exploitation of its colonies. This was a factor, but the economy was also a factor. An agricultural economy, especially wih the technology prevalent in the DEI, did not generate the same income of an industrial economy. Not only was money not available at the government level, but parents needed the children to work to support the family. Thus Indonesia could not support institutions that industrial economies could generate like public education. For some reason, public school text books in the West connct capitalism with child labor. Just the oppoite is the case. Public schools began as capitalism and industrualization began to transform Europe and Amererica. In Indonesia's case, it was the oil resource that helped build a public school system.


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Last updated: 5:57 PM 6/14/2018