The History Of Child Labour

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Although working conditions for children have significantly improved over the years, the inequality between rich and poor education continues to result in the exploitation of children in the labour industry.

1.2 What is child labour?

Child labour refers to the exploitation of children through work and employment that deprives them of their childhood, their potential and their dignity. (Worldvision.com.au, 2019) Child labourers often work unreasonable hours in dangerous conditions where they are vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment. Moreover, since their bodies and minds are still growing, children are more vulnerable to occupational hazards than adults, and the effects are often more severe and permanent. While child labour is far more prevalent in developing nations, children all over the world are exploited in the labour market and have been throughout history. This article will explore the history of child labour throughout the Middle Ages, the Industrial Ages and the Modern Age.

2.0 Child labour in the Middle Ages

2.1 Background information – the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages was the medieval period of European history between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance. While children in the Middle Ages spent many hours in manual labour, they did so in a family environment. “Children were an integral part of a peasant family’s income as productive workers contributing to the farming production” (ThoughtCo, 2019). However, the importance of assisting around the house often meant very few children received a formal education. Teenagers in peasant families were more likely to work instead of attending school. Working conditions for children during the Middle Ages were particularly safe, as most children performed simple chores within their families.

2.2 Working conditions

During the Middle Ages, children from as young as age 5 or 6 were expected to work and provide valuable assistance around the household. Younger children often performed simple chores including fetching water, herding geese, sheep or goats, gathering fruit, nuts, or firewood, walking and feeding horses, and fishing. Older children were required to watch over their younger siblings (ThoughtCo, 2019). As children grew into their teenage years their workload increased with more difficult and demanding tasks. As well as performing simple chores around the house, it was not uncommon to find teenagers working as servants in other households.

3.0 Child labour in the Industrial Ages

3.1 Background information – the Industrial Ages

The Industrial Age, also known as the Industrial Revolution was an era defined by the transition to new manufacturing processes in Europe and the United States. The Revolution began in 1760 and continued for 60 to 80 years. During this time, many people moved to the cities from rural areas, which dramatically accelerated the process of industrialization. As a result of the rapid urbanization, overpopulated cities faced significant challenges including high levels of pollution, inadequate sanitation and lack of clean drinking water. (History.com, 2019)

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3.2 Working conditions

Industrialisation corresponded to a period of high activity demanding an increased workforce. This resulted in industrialists recruiting labour massively in factories and mines, including younger workers.

In this way, the development of large-scale manufacturing led to the exploitation of children in the labour industry. Children as young as four years old were exploited for their age, size and gender and forced to work under extremely dangerous conditions. They worked in coal mines pushing wagons in the tunnels, cleaned under factory machinery (in some cases while the machines were still running), worked as chimney sweeps and in weaving workshops. A typical work day for children during the Industrial Revolution was 10-14 hours, with little or no break. Working conditions in factories and mines were high risk and accident rates were alarmingly high. These conditions led to serious health consequences – mental and physical, including stunted growth, difficulty breathing, tired eyes and wheezing as well as severe trauma and further mental health problems as children became adults. (France, 2019) The movement to regulate child labour began with the establishment of the ‘Cotton Factories Regulation Act’ in 1819 after the exploitation of children in the workplace had became a prevalent issue. However, since there were no effective means of enforcing this act, these laws were rarely implemented. In 1833 parliament intervened, releasing the “regulation of child labour law.” This act contained a comprehensive set of rules that were successfully enforced. According to this act, children below the age of nine could not be employed in textile manufacturing factories. Children between the ages of nine and thirteen could not work more than eight hours in a day and would receive a one hour lunch break. (Foundations.uwgb.org, 2019) Fortunately, working conditions for children continued to improve over the years.

4.0 Child labour in the Modern Age

4.1 Background information – the Modern Age

The Modern Age is an era characterised by technological development and economic advancement. However, child labour remains an issue, most commonly in developing nations. It is estimated that there are currently 40 million people trapped in modern slavery, 10 million of whom are children. Furthermore, an estimated 73 million children aged 5-17 are currently employed under hazardous conditions in a wide range of industries, including agriculture, mining, construction, manufacturing, hotels, bars, restaurants, markets and domestic services. These conditions are found in both developing and industrialised countries.

4.2 Working conditions

Companies in the fast fashion industry continue pushing for ever-cheaper labour, resulting in the employment of young children. Child labour is a prevailing issue in the fashion industry because the supply chain is hugely complex making it near impossible for companies to control every stage of production. “Children work at all stages of the supply chain in the fashion industry: from the production of cotton seeds in Benin, harvesting in Uzbekistan, yarn spinning in India, right through to the different phases of putting garments together in factories across Bangladesh” (Labs.theguardian.com, 2019). In the fashion market, children are subject to long working hours, exposure to pesticides and are often paid below the minimum wage. Some children work from 6am to 7pm for less than 20 cents. Unfortunately, children in the fast fashion industry are viewed as compliant employees who slip under the radar, making them easy to exploit.

5.0 Conclusion

While working conditions for children have improved significantly over the years, the exploitation of children in the labour industry continues to occur. During the Middle Ages, children mostly worked for their families, performing simple chores around the house and in the fields. When the Industrial Revolution began, children were forced into dangerous working conditions, most commonly in factories and mines. Although conditions improved significantly over the years, many children around the world are still exploited in modern day slavery, especially in the fashion industry.

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The History Of Child Labour. (2021, August 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 27, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-history-of-child-labour/
“The History Of Child Labour.” Edubirdie, 09 Aug. 2021, edubirdie.com/examples/the-history-of-child-labour/
The History Of Child Labour. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-history-of-child-labour/> [Accessed 27 May 2022].
The History Of Child Labour [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Aug 09 [cited 2022 May 27]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-history-of-child-labour/
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