The Inhumane Actions Of Child Labor

The early 1900s were a period of rebirth and reconstruction for the South. Originally introduced as the “New South,” plans for change were in order. Post-Civil War effects had negatively impacted the nation; over 22,000 people died, building structures were destroyed, and most importantly, the economy was degraded. Consequently, strategies had to be implemented to get a new government body and renew old systems. At this period of time, the earliest forms of industrialization as well as technological advancements were just being introduced to the country including oil, steel, railway systems and electricity. Soon the nation was in one of its most successful eras as the demands of consumers were being filled, and money was coming in at high figures. With the excitement that came with new products on the market, the business industry was now a number one priority. As a result, there was a significant demand for workers to fill vacant positions and operate the new machinery. The lengths taken by factory owners to run their businesses were inhumane and cruel. One cannot overlook the exploitation of human rights as children were used for income.

Child labor can be defined as the process of using underage children in the business industry without legal consent. Despite children being generally used to do tasks over the years of history, labor became a major problem during the early 1900s. During the Industrial Revolution companies got desperate for employees as months went by and began seeking members of the lower class who would be more interested in making an income. This group included women and children. In addition, the immigrants who frequently came to the United States were of great use to employers, as they used bribery or threats to get them to work for them. Companies knew that women and children would settle for less pay than the men would appreciate, this gave the leaders many advantages, especially in saving a lot of money. The poor families were struggling more by the day and were now growing tired of poverty. As a result, they did not hesitate to send their children to work.

Child labor in the 1900s was not seen as the unjust, cruel action that it is, but instead was done regularly and without consideration. The children worked in the factories, mines and mills, between 10-12 hours a day, every day without breaks, and for very little money in order to pay at least a third of the families’ expenses for food. Work was divided into categories based on age, gender and skills. The working conditions of the environment were unstable for the children for many reasons. Gratton and Moen argued “the regularity and steady intensity of work increased because machines were setting the pace, not the family; harsh physical discipline was applied in noxious factories and a parent’s affection was replaced by a master’s indifference, at best (361).”

Those hired in the mills and factories experienced the most danger. They wore incorrect garments to work such as baggy clothes, torn shirts, and trousers. Also, no protective gear was provided for them. Consequently, their bare feet suffered horrific incidents such as losing toes and bone fractures. Due to the fact that they did not wear gloves, their hands would get trapped in machines. They also lost fingers and would frequently get blisters from the heavy-duty equipment they were in charge of running. Many of the children did not live to see the age 21 because of severe illnesses and respiratory diseases from all the fumes and bad air they would inhale so often which affected their lungs and immune system. In the coal mines there were tunnels that were inaccessible to adults, so they would send the children in to the small, confined spaces and have them tied to carts like animals which carried large amounts of cargo throughout the tunnel openings on rails for long distances. Such horrific conditions may have led to scoliosis, dislocated spinal bones or even life-threatening illnesses. Children were at high risk when working because of how easy it was for them to get hurt and each of them tried to be as careful as possible to prevent injuries as they were easily replaceable and needed to keep their jobs for as long as they could before they wore out.

Aside from physical health, their mental development and cognitive standards were not being met due to the lack of education. All these children knew was how to work machines. Most of them were illiterate and did not know how to read and write. Working so many hours per day left no time for school or any type of learning. Seeing that segregation was also taking place in educational facilities that only the rich whites could afford, the opportunity was not really there for them either. Most, if not all, of the children did not play or spend their few free hours from working having any sort of fun. Children did not know how to carry out normal activities expected for those in their age group but was taught from early on how to work. This was unhealthy for them and may have even resulted in the lack of social and communication skills. The most unfortunate part of working at such a young age was the premature deaths that occurred. Being so young, the children suffered twice as much as adults would, many of them getting trapped in small areas, others crushed by falling rocks in the underground caves, others fell to their deaths from hauling bags of coals while climbing up ropes, lastly, victims were also killed by the heavy machines they worked with.

Many families were put through devastation every time they would lose a child at such a young age and such events must have been heartbreaking. By the late 19th century, things continued to spiral downwards in a negative way and the people decided that it was time to take a stand and be the voice for the children who could not fend for themselves. According to Gratton and Moen, “descriptive series show that the labor force or gainful employment rates of children fell from 1880 to 1920, despite absolute increases in the number of child workers (375).” A cause of this may have been the parents’ influence which was done as an effort to stop child labor and help keep the children from being abused and overworked in the factories and mines. Following this, the National Child Labor Committee was formed. Its purpose was to expose the truth through methods like photos and distributing them to the public to view the plight of the children.

The response of the government was extremely important for change to happen and this could only be achieved through political recognition by the people. According to Gratton and Moen, “In the late 19th century, when a concerted protest movement against child labor first arose, different groups of parents and authority figures poused distinct views (356).” Despite the debate about whether children should work or not, the opinions of the Progressives differed. Based on the different cultural backgrounds of the parents, children were treated differently. “The Progressive culture believed that children were a precious gift to be protected and nurtured, while on the other side foreigners and southern whites took their children from school for labor (Gratton & Moen 356).” With all the attention surrounding the debate, strikes were taking place and the formation of unions began with the objective to end child labor.

During the late 19th century, the earliest attempt to reform child labor in the United States was done in 1837. As stated by Perera, “a Massachusetts law was passed in 1837, the focus of which was the provision of education to children who worked. A few other states adopted similar laws before 1880 but the legislation generally contained weak restrictions (1863).” While these laws were being written by different states in order to get recognition, strong arguments which demanded serious actions were not being proposed often enough and did not receive much notice. In 1886, New York was successful in enforcing a law. Perera stated “the 1886 New York State Child Labor Law was the first enforceable child labor law in the state and was followed by similar legislation in other states. By 1899, 44 states and territories had some type of child labor law (1863).” The Great Depression which began in the late 1920s shed light on the situation and the Supreme Court’s involvement began. However, the endless efforts of laws being passed continued getting overlooked and overruled by the Supreme Court.

The determination of the people never gave up and the fight for the rights of their children remained strong until they got the response they were looking for. In 1938, child labor was finally abolished by the government due to the Fair of Labor Standard Act which declared that “products made by children cannot be bought or sold.” In addition, no child would be allowed to work until the age of 16 unless the required working papers were shown to employers which could only be received as early as age 14. The law also required that all children should receive an education and attend school. As we know, the current events of today’s society are all influenced in some form or way to the past and so, because of these phenomenal movements, the children of our generation are allowed the luxury of getting an education and are protected against early participation in the workforce.

A few countries around the world may practice child labor just the same like the not so wealthy countries. Although the conditions may not be as severe as the past, the rights of children should be respected despite age or living situations. One may be able to argue about differences among societies, but a child should be able to act as such. Child labor was never right and was officially reformed in 1938 which was one of the best choices made by the government as opportunities were then open to the less fortunate whether it be education or better paying jobs that require less work and torture. 

16 December 2021
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