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Child Labor

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Child Labor


Child labor was and is still an existing practice in the world today. Manuel, a five-year old worked at a seafood cannery in Biloxi, Mississippi, with a shrimp pail in each hand and a mountain of oyster shells behind his back. He is typical for thousands of working children in the years before the civil war, especially the turn of the century. America's army of child laborers had been growing steadily for the past century. The nation's economy was expanding. Factories, minds and mills needed plenty of cheap labor. Around 1911, more than two million American children under the age of 16 years of age were a regular part of the work force. Many of them worked twelve hours or more a day, six days a week, for pathetic wages under unhealthy and hazardous conditions.

Thousands of young boys descended into dark and dangerous coal mines every day, or worked aboveground in the dust of coal breakers, picking slate from coal with torn and bleeding fingers. Small girls tended noisy machines in the spinning rooms of cotton mills, where the humid, lint-filled air made breathing difficult. They were actually kept awake by cold water being thrown in their faces. Three-year-olds could be found in the cotton fields, and twelve-year-olds on factor night shifts. Across the country, children who should have been in school or at play had to work for a living.

By the early 1900's, many Americans were calling child labor "child slavery" and were demanding an end to it. They argued that long hours of work deprived children of an education and robbed them for useful lives as productive adults, child labor promised a future of illiteracy, poverty and continuing misery.

Besides, reformers said, children have certain rights. Above all, they have the right to be children and not breadwinners. Lewis Hine, a schoolteacher and photographer, was one of those early reformers. He felt so strongly about the use of children as industrial workers that he quit his teaching job to become an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC).

Hine carrying a simple box camera traveled back and forth across the country, from sardine canneries of Maine to the cotton fields of Texas. He took pictures of kids at work, listened to their stories, and reported on their lives.

His obvious goal was to reveal to the world the horrors of child labor and move people into action. There is a big difference between children who worked at odd jobs after school or did chores around the house or the family farm. No one could object to youngsters working as trainees and apprentices, merely learning skills they would use for the rest of their life. The campaign against child labor was not directed to them. It was aimed at the exploitation of boys and girls as cheap labor. The object, Hine points out, of employing children is not to train them, but to get high profits from their work.

Because children could be hired cheaply and were too small to complain, they were often employed to replace adult workers. In industries when large numbers of children were employed, their low wages pulled down the earnings of everyone else, so that grown-ups could not earn enough to support their families. As a result, poor families needed their children's wages just to survive.

As criticism of child labor grew, a number of states passed laws regulating working hours and wages for children. But more often that not, those laws were filled with loopholes and favored manufacturers. A lot of the states failed to even enforce the weakest child labor laws.

The National Child Labor Committee was fighting for strict laws and effective enforcement. Founded in 1904, it was a militant organization made up of men and women who believed that a healthy, happy, normal childhood was the rightful heritage of all children.

The NCLC wanted to ban the employment of children under fourteen years of age in most occupations, and under sixteen in dangerous trades such as mining. For all children, the NCLC demanded an eight hour day, no night work and mandatory work permits based on documentary proof of age. The NCLC also wanted compulsory school-attendance laws, but they didn't put much effort into it. It was hard enough to get honest child-labor laws passed and obeyed.

Lewis Hine once entered a textile mill to find thirty-five boys who appeared to be from nine to fourteen years of age. Some of the smallest boys said to have been working in the mill for several years. Hine discovered that they employees reported to work before dawn, hours before the manager arrived.

Textile mills were big offenders, especially in the South, where one mill worker in every four was between the ages of ten and fifteen. No one knew how many workers were actually younger than ten because they weren't counted.

Throughout the segregated South, mill work was reserved for whites, blacks were seldom hired. Most mill hands were white share-croppers and tenant farmers who had abandoned worn-out farms for the promise of steady employment in the mills.

Entire families left their farms to work in the mills. Many of the children, in fact most, quit school at an early age, or never went at all. Their parents, who often lacked education themselves, didn't want their kids "wasting time" by attending school. They felt that youngsters should work to help support the family.

Children toiled in cotton mills as spinners, doffers, and sweepers. Girls were usually employed as spinners. They walked up and down the aisles, brushing lint from the machines and watching the whirling spools or bobbins for breaks in cotton thread. Girls had to be on their feet nearlyall the time, working eleven or twelve hours a day, six days a week.

Boys began working as doffers when they were seven or younger. It was their job to remove the whirling bobbins when they were filled with thread and replace them with the empty ones. Most of the children worked barefoot. That made it easier to climb onto the huge machines so they could reach the bobbins. If they weren't careful, they could fall into the moving machinery or be caught by it. The accident rate for children working in mills was twice as high as it was for adults.

In one mill, Hine reported "A twelve-year-old doffer boy fell into a spinning machine and the unprotected gearing tore out two of his fingers.

Since heat and moisture helped keep the cotton threads from breaking, the mill windows were always kept closed. The hot, steamy air was filled with dust and lint that covered the workers clothes and made it hard to breathe. Mill workers frequently developed tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis, and other respiratory diseases. A boy working in the cotton mill was only half as likely to reach twenty years of age as a boy outside the mill. Girls had an even less chance.

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Keywords: child labor laws, child labor definition, child labor meaning, child labor industrial revolution, child labor in the philippines, child labor essay, child labor act, child labor today

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