Blogs > Liberty and Power > U.S. Child Labor Laws are Child Abuse

Jul 25, 2008 12:52 pm

U.S. Child Labor Laws are Child Abuse

When I was sixteen, I ran away from home and lived on the streets for as short a period of time as I could manage. I did not turn to prostitution or to drugs; I was lucky. Not in avoiding paid sex and substances -- these were deliberate choices. I was lucky to be sixteen and, so, able to legally support myself. If I had been two months younger, child labor laws would have forced me to beg or do far worse in order to survive.

People call me"an exception." They baldly state that most kids on the street would never choose low-paid honest jobs over well-paid criminal ones. How do they know? Government does not permit a comparison to exist. At sixteen, I decided that 'profits' are not all monetary -- but this was something I knew at fifteen and fourteen as well. I knew that prostitution and drugs were violent, disease-prone worlds in which I had no future. Even if only a minority of under-aged runaways would make the same choice, how can anyone in good conscience deny them that opportunity?

Another common comment is that I should have sought the assistance of a governmental agency. There are at least two things wrong with this advice. First, runaways are on the streets because authority figures in their lives have betrayed them. Most of them will not willingly relinquish control to yet another authority. Second, there is an assumption that government protects children, yet this is the same government that denies them the right to their own labor. History frowns upon the belief that government protects children's rights.

The History of Child Labor Laws

Consider child labor in 19th century Victorian Britain -- the well spring from which modern child labor laws evolved. Immediately, hideous snapshots flash in the mind: five-year-olds being lowered into coal mines, wan children at textile mills, a Dickenesque Oliver asking for"more". These images are used to condemn the free market and the Industrial Revolution against whose evils a humanitarian government is said to have passed child labor laws. This analysis is badly mistaken.

For one thing, it misses a key distinction. Early 19th century Britain had two forms of child labor: free; and, parish or 'pauper' children. Historians J.L. and Barbara Hammond, whose work on the British industrial revolution and child labor is considered definitive, clearly recognized this distinction. The free market economist Lawrence W. Reed, in his brilliant essay"Child Labor and the British Industrial Revolution," goes one step farther. He recognizes the importance of the distinction.

Free labor children lived with their parents or guardians and worked during the day at wages agreeable to those adults. But parents often refused to send their children into unusually harsh or dangerous work situations. As Reed notes,"Private factory owners could not forcibly subjugate 'free labour' children; they could not compel them to work in conditions their parents found unacceptable." For example, the unacceptable position of 'scavenger' in textile factories. Typically, scavengers were young children -- about six-years-old -- who had to salvage loose cotton from under the machinery. Because the machinery was running, the job was dangerous and injury was common.

Fortunately for businessmen willing to use the State to their advantage, government had no qualms about sending parish children to work under running machines. Reed explains,"These youngsters [parish children]...were under the direct authority and supervision not of their parents...but of government officials." Parish workhouses had existed for centuries, but Victorian society with its stern Protestant work ethic was unique in considering poverty to be a personal moral failure on the part of the poor. Sympathy for the downtrodden was also lessened by the fact that taxes for poor relief in 1832 were over five times higher than they had been in 1760. Gertrude Himmelfarb's book"The Idea of Poverty" chronicles this shift in attitude toward the poor from compassion to condemnation.

In 1832, partly at the behest of labor-hungry manufacturers, the Royal Poor Law Commission began an inquiry into the"the practical operation of the laws for the relief of the poor." Its report divided the poor into two basic categories: lazy paupers who received governmental aid; and, the industrious working poor who were self-supporting. The result was the Poor Law of 1834, which statesman Benjamin Disraeli called an announcement that"poverty is a crime." The Poor Law replaced outdoor relief (subsidies and handouts) with 'poor houses' in which pauper children were virtually imprisoned. There, the conditions were made purposely harsh to discourage people from applying. Virtually every parish in Britain had abandoned workhouse children who, being bought and sold to factories, experienced the deepest horrors of child labor. In this, the workhouses were merely continuing a practice common before the Poor Laws.

It is no coincidence that the first industrial novel published in Britain was"Michael Armstrong: Factory Boy" by Frances Trollope. Michael was apprenticed to an agency for pauper children. Nor is it coincidence that"Oliver Twist" was not abused by his parents, but by brutal workhouse officials in comparison to whom Fagin was a humanitarian. And, remember, at the age of twelve with his family in debtor's prison, Dickens himself was a pauper child who slaved at the Blacking Factory. Reed observes,"[t]he first Act in Britain that applied to factory children was passed to protect these very parish apprentices, not 'free labour' children." The Act was explicit in doing so.

Even workhouse children with solvent parents could not always escape the grasp of officials. The"Ashton Chronicle" (June 23, 1849) published an interview with pauper child Sarah Carpenter, who explained:"My father was a glass blower. When I was eight years old my father died and our family had to go to the Bristol Workhouse. My brother was sent from Bristol workhouse in the same way as many other children were - cart-loads at a time. My mother did not know where he was for two years. He was taken off in the dead of night without her knowledge, and the parish officers would never tell her where he was."

Thus, in advocating the regulation of child labor, social reformers asked government to remedy abuses for which it was largely responsible. Once more, government was"a disease masquerading as its own cure." To their credit, some reformers realized that regulations to help the poor did precisely the opposite. Thus, the classical liberal John Bright -- a leader of the Anti-Corn Law movement that championed the poor -- voted against the Factory Act of 1844 in the British House of Commons. The Act reduced the hours of work for children between eight and thirteen years old; it also reduced the ability of poor families to survive.

But what of the other side of the equation -- the businessmen willing to use pauper children as slave labor? Consider one example. To assuage labor shortages at his textile mills, Samuel Greg took children from workhouses. Indeed, children were offered to him. In February 1817, the Vicar of Biddulph wrote to him:"The thought has occurred to me that some of the younger branches of the poor of this parish might be useful to you as apprentices in your factory at Quarry Bank. If you are in want of any of the above, we could readily furnish you with 10 or more at from 9 to 12 years of age of both sexes." Usually, such children were apprenticed to an employer until the age of twenty-one.

When the local parishes no longer provided sufficient labor, Greg went as far as Liverpool and London for children. Some parishes paid businessmen like Greg between two and four pounds to take a child off their hands. The children received their board and lodging from Greg, as well as a small salary.

Greg saw himself as a humanitarian and, by contrast with workhouse officials, he probably was. In"The Philosophy of Manufactures" (1835), Andrew Ure wrote:"At...the great firm of Greg and Son....stands a handsome house, two stories high, built for the accommodation of the female apprentices. They are well fed, clothed and educated. The apprentices have milk-porridge for breakfast, potatoes and bacon for dinner, and meat on Sundays."

But no amount of decent treatment can obscure the fact that the children were stripped of the one thing they possessed -- their labor and the right to contract. Nothing can convert the violation of their rights as laborers into an act of benevolence by Greg or by government officials.

Contemporary Child Labor

Government's victimization of children through denying them their rights as laborers is not merely a matter of history. In September 1990, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), already adopted by the UN General Assembly, came into force. The human rights violations involved in child labor began to receive unprecedented attention.

There is no question: children around the globe are being coerced into slave labor situations that are appalling, and should be prohibited. No one -- not parents, employers, or governments -- should be able to coerce children into or prohibit them from entering work situations. Children old enough to be supporting themselves are old enough to make their own decisions.

The foregoing statement seems heartless. The reverse is true. The only real protections children can enjoy are the family structure and their ability to be self-sufficient. In an ideal world -- a Western world -- families are prosperous and supportive: children are protected and educated. In Third World countries, parents often cannot provide the basics of life for their children, who must trade their labor for sustenance. The greatest act of benevolence is to recognize their right to contract and to work in the same manner as adult rights are respected. Anything that interferes with the self-sufficiency necessary for their survival is child abuse.

This is what Third World governments, under pressure from the UN and the United States, are doing. They are denying children the right to their labor -- to self-sufficiency -- by prohibiting children under a certain age from working. In some countries, the minimum age is now eighteen. And the standards of abusive child labor are so broadenly defined as to prohibit the possibility of voluntary child labor. For example, Article 32 of the UNCRC affirms a child's right to be “protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development." These standards would virtually eliminate all forms of child labor, whether coerced or voluntary, abusive or not.

In an article within"Child Workers in Asia" (Vol. 15. No. 3, 1999), Sulaiman Zuhdi Manik describes a work situation in Indonesia. Namely, there are children"working on fishing platforms, called ‘Jermal’, in the middle of the sea" where conditions are brutal. The solution imposed,"An Indonesian Minister of Labour Circular Letter dated 1997 forbids child workers on Jermal and a 1998 Circular Letter from the Governor of North Sumatra forbids the Jermal owners to hire children under 18." Are the children who are seventeen there by choice? Did all Jermal owners coerce or abuse their child laborers? And what became of the suddenly unemployed children?

Only the latter question is answered in the article:"They are still being hired and forced to work under terrible conditions." What forces them? A coercive individual, or the reality of poverty through which they must survive?

The question of what happens to children by government decree is dealt with more candidly on the UNICEF web site. It describes garment factories in Bangladesh"following the introduction of the Child Labor Deterrence Act in 1992 by US Senator Tom Harkin. The Bill would have prohibited the importation into the US of goods made using child labour....[W]hen Senator Harkin reintroduced the Bill the following year...garment employers dismissed an estimated 50,000 children from their factories, approximately 75 per cent of all children in the industry."

UNICEF admitted to surprise at the consequences. The children"were trapped in a harsh environment with no skills, little or no education, and precious few alternatives." In follow-up visits to homes and villages, UNICEF discovered that the" children went looking for new sources of income, and found them in work such as stone-crushing, street hustling and prostitution - all of them more hazardous and exploitative than garment production. In several cases, the mothers of dismissed children had to leave their jobs in order to look after their children."

UNICEF's proposed solution: increased governmental involvement and programs. Having forced children into more hazardous labor and causing poor families to lose the income of mothers, the real solution to child labor never seems to occur to such agencies. Namely, to call for the labor rights of all children to be respected. Instead, they promote the opposite: they call for the inability of children to contract their labor as free human beings.

Some pieces of legislation seem to address the difference between voluntary and coerced child labor. For example, on June 12, 1999, the White House issued an Executive Order entitled"Prohibition of Acquisition of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor." Moreover, the Order's definition seems adequate:"'Forced or indentured child labor' means all work or service (1) exacted from any person under the age of 18 under the menace of any penalty for its nonperformance and for which the worker does not offer himself voluntarily; or (2) performed by any person under the age of 18 pursuant to a contract the enforcement of which can be accomplished by process or penalties." Critics might and should decry the further intrusion of government into the sphere of business, how can the Order be criticized on the basis of harming voluntary child laborers?

It will do so in the same manner as the bill proposed by Senator Harkin. The Executive Order instructs the Department of Labor to"publish in the Federal Register a list of products, identified by their country of origin, that those Departments have a reasonable basis to believe *might* have been mined, produced, or manufactured by forced or indentured child labor."[Emphasis added] At the mere whiff of such a mention, any prudent American business will cease to deal with the suspected producer. At the mere possibility of being mentioned, foreign business -- like the garment industry in Bangladesh -- will dismiss child laborers, voluntary or not.

Thus,"The Economist" (January 15-21, 2000) advises rich nations who wish to ease the pain of Third World child labor"to send the children aid rather than impose harmful trade sanctions. If exports made by child labour are banned, children often end up unemployed or in unregulated sectors such as prostitution."


The foregoing analysis will seem callous to many. This is especially true of the many good hearted people who support child labor measures in the belief that passing a piece of paper through a governmental body will change a complicated social situation. Such people sleep better at night because they have"done something." One of the things they accomplish is to make fifteen-year-old runaways in their own back alleys turn to prostitution. The effect on Third World children may be far more devastating.

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