Recently there have been a number of television reports and studies which have highlighted the continuing problem of child labour. In 1996 the International Labour Office (ILO) claimed that approximately 73 million children between the ages of ten and 14 work throughout the world. This figure is an underestimation since it represents the official figures given to the ILO by national governments, but government recording of child labour is notoriously poor. If illegal and unreported instances of child labour were added, the figures would increase substantially (for example, in India alone it has been estimated that more than 44 million children are working).
Further, these figures fail to reveal the full plight of child workers who are often employed in the most appalling conditions. Generally, children work in the most backward sectors of the economy, in marginal jobs in non-unionised firms. Children remain an important source of cheap labour for many small companies trying to compete with large multinational corporations (or to provide components to multinationals who have outsourced work to local companies).
Child labourers can be found across the globe performing a wide range of tasks. A number of reports by the ILO, Anti-Slavery International, and the more recently established International Working Group on Child Labour show children working in factories (in Taiwan, for example, where many children sleep above the factory in conditions which mirror those of the pauper apprentices in early 19th century in Britain), down mines (in Bolivia and other Latin American countries), in mills (in India, Pakistan and in North Africa) and on building sites almost everywhere. They work in the service sector, which sounds relatively pleasant but involves them performing arduous labour for long hours and little reward. They populate the tourist industry and they scavenge for survival on the streets of cities and towns across the globe.
But child labour is not just a problem in the 'Third World'. Research produced by a number of groups over the last ten years has emphasised that the exploitation of children at work is alive and well in Britain. Partly in recognition of the problem, earlier this year the government made a commitment to finally sign a European Union directive regulating the working hours and conditions of young people under the age of 16. For the previous ten years Tory governments had refused to consider any such legislation. They claimed that European bureaucrats were trying to stop children in Britain, in the words of Norman Fowler, 'earning a little extra pocket money'. For other Tories, child labour was positively advocated as a way of enforcing the value of work and the virtue of saving. Right wing Professor Roger Scruton claimed in 1990 that:
'Many a 14 year old, set to work as a builder's apprentice, an electrician's mate or a stable hand, will learn more than he could ever at school, while acquiring independence, responsibility and self-respect. If the pay were sufficiently low, and children were willing to work for quite paltry sums, there would be no lack of employers ready to offer it.' (Guardian 13 February, 1990)
The message from the Tories was that working children are not a problem. However, the reality is rather different. The research indicates that the vast majority of children in Britain will have undertaken some forms of employment before they reach the school leaving age at 16. According to the Low Pay Unit, this means that approximately 2 million children have paid jobs in Britain at present.
This work is not the 'harmless' activity carried out for 'pocket money' that the Tories and bosses like to depict. The majority of children will be doing jobs that we think of as 'children's': newspaper and milk delivery are the most common. But each study has shown that children work in shops, cafes, restaurants, hotels, bars, garages, warehouses, offices and factories. It is illegal for children to undertake most of these jobs. Each carries particular risk to children's health and safety and often involves them working at machines that are designed to be operated by the adult frame, risking potential long term physical damage. Sometimes the dangers can be more immediate. Recently a Channel 4 programme Look Who's Working found a factory in the north west of England where children were employed making boxes. To enable them to reach and operate the machines the safety shield had been removed, allowing their hands to get closer to the automated guillotine.
Even the traditional delivery jobs pose problems. A study published in the Observer (18 December 1988) found that newspaper delivery workers can carry 'anything from 21.5lbs to 68.5lbs - nearly five stones' in their shoulder bags. In comparison the Communication Workers' Union has an agreement with the Post Office that postal cadets (16-18 year old trainees) cannot carry more than 20lbs on foot and 26lbs on a suitably designed bike. Milk delivery jobs bring other problems. Recent changes to how milk rounds are organised have seen the routes put out to tender. In these circumstances milkmen have had to bid for rounds. The result has been that rounds have got larger with milkmen submitting lower bids to complete the work. The basis of such bids has been the availability of children willing to work for pitiful wages. Further, because of the size of rounds, many children are expected to start work between 3am and 4am. Their real working day, therefore, is four or five hours on a milk round followed by five and a half hours at school.
The common thread in child employment is not the jobs children do but the fact that overwhelmingly they work in unregulated outlets, in conditions which break existing health and safety and child employment law and, perhaps its defining characteristic, that child labour is cheap labour.
Yet the phrase 'child labour' is not one we expect to use in modern Britain. Rather it is a phrase we associate with the earliest days of industrial capitalism. It conjures up Dickensian images of children working at, between or under machines in dark mills, down mines or in oppressive factories. Alternatively, the image may be of children forced up chimneys to clean flues in the homes of the rich and powerful.
According to most standard history books, these examples are an unfortunate part of British history. But, they suggest, the generally accepted recognition that child labour was bad motivated the politicians and civil servants of the day to stop the practice. Indeed, the issue of child labour eradication is sometimes said to prove that liberal democracy works and that the ruling class can be convinced of the justice of establishing more humane working conditions. However, the struggle to control the worst excesses of child labour exploitation in British history reveals a completely different picture.
Child labour exploitation in Britain did not start with the Industrial Revolution. In the 100 years or so prior to the take off of the Industrial Revolution children could be found working in the cottage industries and mines during the 'protoindustrial' period that marked the early days of capitalism in Britain.
In this period the development and expansion of the market system increasingly regulated working life. Access to the market and raw materials was controlled by merchants and middlemen who would deliver materials and components to workers in their own cottages. These workers would work them into the finished article and return them to the merchant. Although the workers in the cottage industry had control over the actual production process, they had no direct access to the market. Under these conditions, and in competition with other cottages, they were forced to reduce their labour costs to an absolute minimum. The consequence was that the entire family would be involved in the production process - even children as young as three were often given subsidiary tasks to perform.
Ivy Pinchbeck in her book Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution emphasises that the conditions in the cottages were horrific. She describes in great detail the damp, dark and dank conditions in which entire families worked. The pressures of the developing market system reduced workers to commodities, forced families to utilise the labour power of all their members, increased working hours, reduced wages and produced deteriorating working conditions. The conclusion is stark: child labour exploitation was born with the development of capitalism. It is a consequence of the commodification of labour power.
The plight of child workers worsened even further during the Industrial Revolution. The mills and factories which developed in towns and cities across Britain broke completely any residual family control over the labour process. The factories drew men, women and children into work. The conditions and hours of work were now directly controlled by managers, overseers and foremen and the pace of work was set by the relentless drive of the machines. E P Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class describes the treatment of child workers during this period as 'one of the most shameful events in our history'. In their classic study of the social consequences of the Industrial Revolution, The Town Labourer, the Hammonds portray the cruelty of child labour. Their specific jobs would often require them to crawl under fast moving machines to fix broken threads or clean or oil working parts. Factories were brutal and brutalising places and children would often be beaten to work harder or to make sure they stayed awake during their long working shifts.
Such circumstances led to a variety of campaigns and attempts to improve working conditions. The struggle to restrict child labour was central to these campaigns. The campaign against child labour consisted of two groups. First there was the activity of a number of Tories of the time, people like Oastler, Saddler and Shaftesbury. There were differences between these three but part of their campaign was structured around the argument that the labour conditions of the time were undermining the family and the moral order. Shaftesbury in particular, who is often portrayed as a 'child saver', was motivated by such religious and ideological commitments. But it wasn't just leading Tories who were campaigning against child labour. Workers in the Short-time Committees were committed to restricting the horrors of child labour and the degradations that their children faced as part of their campaign to improve general working conditions.
For working class activists the working conditions during the Industrial Revolution were undermining family life, making daily and inter-generational reproduction increasingly difficult. In some areas and some industries men were being replaced by women and children because they were cheaper to employ, further increasing the material burden on working class families. In these circumstances some workers argued for a family wage which would be earned by men but would be adequate to support the entire family. Although the family wage was rarely achieved in practice it gave further impetus to the demand to remove children from the labour market.
Despite the growing campaigns against child labour the ruling class of the 19th century fought tooth and nail against any attempt to restrict child labour. Whenever legislation was proposed they fought a rearguard action which usually resulted in legislation being watered down and containing many loopholes which employers could exploit. Legislation that was introduced also tended to be specific to any one industry rather than generally applicable to all trades. The consequence was that the struggle against child labour continued right through to the early 20th century, with half-time working in areas such as Lancashire - when children had to split their day between school and mill - not abolished until 1918.
The significant restrictions on child labour actually occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the state started to take a more interventionist role into working class family life. During this period, Britain's relative economic decline in competition with Germany and the US promoted a growing crisis within ruling class circles. The large number of recruits to the army rejected as 'unfit for service' during the Boer War showed the terrible state of working class life and seemed to suggest that the condition of the working class could threaten the ability of the British Empire to defend itself against rebellion. Meanwhile, at home, the second wave of unionisation, the unemployed riots of the 1880s and 1890s, and the growth of a number of socialist organisations seemed to threaten the ruling class's very existence.
In these circumstances state social policy started to focus on children and attempted to create an 'appropriate' working class childhood. Compulsory education was introduced to try and promote 'British values'. Social workers, teachers and welfare workers each played an increasingly visible role in the attempted 'invasion' of working class family life. And one consequence of this process was that child labour (or at least that labour that took place during school hours) was restricted and formally prohibited.
As a result, the number of children working declined and children increasingly became restricted to 'out of school work' - that is work that could be easily combined with schooling. In fact in governing circles such jobs became positively encouraged as they allowed children to participate in what was termed the work or business ethic.
The consequence was that child labour disappeared as a social problem. Throughout the 20th century the abuse of child labour has been an issue which only a few activists in the labour movement have taken seriously. Certainly national and local government has failed to address the problem. All the existing research suggests that the vast majority of children who work do so in conditions that break the law. The main regulatory device used by the state is a work permit, which all child workers should obtain before they start work. Somewhere in the region of 90 percent of working children have never heard of the work permit.
Employers continue to use children as a source of cheap labour to provide services for their customers or to take part in directly productive labour. Most employers know that they will easily get away with breaches of existing child labour law. The fact that the New Labour government has signed the European directive will not stop employers exploiting child workers. In fact, its uncritical support for the market will ensure that such horrors remain with us into the 21st century, unless workers organise to stop them.