Socialist Worker

Breaking children's backs to get profit

Issue No. 1740

Britain in 1800, Third World today

Breaking children's backs to get profit

JUST AFTER the Seattle demonstration against the World Trade Organisation in November 1999, Labour's Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, wrote, an article for the Mail on Sunday. It was headlined "Why a Ban On Child Labour Will Not Help Anyone". Short wrote, "The reality is that children in poor countries work or their family goes hungry.

"Countries need to draw in investment and sell their exports to pay for investment. That is why the demonstrators in Seattle were wrong." In every Third World country there are firms and politicians who say children are better off in work.

The subcontractor for a clothing giant in the West will claim that the 12 year olds are grateful for the work and suffer no ill effects-and the Western clothing giant will secretly agree. Such arguments are not new. Child labour has always been part of the global capitalist system. As each country industrialises, its capitalists pitchfork all human material, including children, into a hell of long hours, murderous conditions and early death.

British capitalists in the 19th century said that restricting children to ten hours a day would mean that "the mills must stop" and society would grind to a halt.

Samuel Courtauld, one of those who founded today's textile giants, was very keen on employing young people. "No children among the poor in this neighbourhood are more healthy than those employed in factories," he wrote. In Courtauld factories the boss could pay girls under 11 only 1s 5d (7p) a week compared to the adult male rate of 7s 2d (36p). These respectable child employers could rely on political support.

Lord Althorp was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1830. He was outraged by proposals to limit the working day for children to ten hours. He told the Commons, "I am of the opinion that the effect of the measure proposed by the honourable member must necessarily be a fall in the rate of wages, or, what is more probable, that children would cease to be employed at all in manufactories. Now I appeal to the honourable members whether a measure which would prevent children from obtaining any employment in factories would not be more injurious than beneficial to the labouring classes?"

Carlisle MP William James was an early supporter of the view that globalisation meant that workers could not be given rights: "Children must either work or starve. If the manufacturer is prevented working his mill for more than a certain number of hours together, he will often be unable to execute the orders which he may receive.

"The result will be that you will drive the English capitalist to foreign countries where there is no restriction upon the employment of labour and capital." Bolton Tory MP William Bolling was worried about the "nanny state": "I mistrust interference on behalf of the poor. I dislike all cases of legislative interference between master and man. Your laws to regulate wages and hours of labour-they are merely cobwebs broken through at will. Cultivate commerce with all the nations of the world-this will raise wages and will prevent the necessity for exhausting labour."

The media also backed the employment of children. Roving reporter Andrew Ure toured factory districts in 1834 and reported, "The child workers seemed to be always cheerful and alert, taking pleasure in using their muscles. The work of these lively elves seemed to resemble a sport.

"I have seen tens of thousands of old, young and middle aged of both sexes earning abundant food, raiment and domestic accommodation without perspiring at a single pore, screened meanwhile from the summer's sun and the winter's frost, in apartments more airy and salubrious than those of the metropolis in which our legislature and fashionable aristocracies assemble."

These bosses, politicians and pro-capitalist media men lied then. They lie now. Today there are 250 million child workers across the world. They are the suffering heirs of the gaunt girls at the mills, the terrified chimney sweeps. This is what capitalism looks like. As Marx wrote, "To the outcry as to the physical degradation, the premature death, the torture of overwork, it answers, 'Ought this to trouble us since they increase our profits?'"


"I WAS 13 when I started night work in the steaming department. We worked 14 hours a day. We slept in the mill. We took our meals standing. The work has made me very crooked in my knees. Many others have done worse. I have seen young boys and girls torn to pieces. My overlooker has told my brother that because I have given this evidence I should never have any employment any more, nor my brother neither."

  • David Bywater, Leeds textile worker, 1830

"I WAS 14 when I started at the factory and I often work for 12 hours a day. There is forced overtime, enough sometimes to make people very ill. Sometimes the hours are so long that we end up sleeping in the factory. Those who try to organise a union or talk to the press are finished at the factory. They will never work again at any of the plants in this zone."

  • Textile worker in the Philippines, 2000

Cradle and grave

IF A child worker in Thailand or Indonesia today was transported back to England in 1800 they would instantly recognise the working conditions. It was considered a miracle if workers survived beyond the age of 20. In Britain's silk factories in the 1840s employers said the industry could not run without children's "lightness of touch".

Karl Marx wrote that "the children were slaughtered for the sake of their delicate fingers as in southern Russia the horned cattle for the sake of their hide and tallow." Dr Samuel Smith told a parliamentary committee in the 1830s what factory labour for children meant:

"I believe if horses in this country were put to the same period of labour that factory children are, in a very few years the animal would be almost extinct among us. Up to 12 or 13 years of age the bones are so soft that they will bend in any direction. By long continued standing at machines the knees become so weak that they turn inwards, producing that deformity which is called 'knock knees', and I have sometimes seen the individual lose 12 inches of his height by it. In the female the pelvis is prevented from being properly developed. When they are expecting to become mothers there is not actually space for the exit of the child which is within the womb."

Worker Sarah Carpenter was interviewed in 1832 about her experiences: "The foreman's name was Thomas Birks, but he never went by any other name than Tom the Devil. He was encouraged by the master in ill treating all the hands, but particularly the children.

"He would not even let us speak. He once fell poorly, and very glad we were. We wished he might die. There was a young woman, Sarah Goodling, who was poorly and so she stopped her machine. The foreman knocked her to the floor. She got up as well as she could. He knocked her down again. Then she was carried to the apprentice house. Her bedfellow found her dead in bed. We were always locked up out of mill hours, for fear any of us should run away."

The other fearful trade for children was to be a chimney sweep, which was not abolished in Britain until 1875. As one social reformer wrote, "Orphans or the illegitimate children of the poorest kind of people are sold into this trade. Their service for seven years is disposed of for 20 or 30 shillings, this being a smaller price than the value of a terrier."

Chimney sweeps were recruited at the age of four. Small boys were needed with bones soft enough to crawl through the tiny chimney flues or "coffins of black," as the poet William Blake called them.

A chimney sweep in 1819 gladly consented to the amputation of a leg crushed in a fall after being told that he could not ascend another chimney with only one leg.

Such tragic cases of child labour are not confined to history books. At least 37 children were killed two weeks ago in a primary school in China's Jiangxi province after an explosion. The children, some as young as eight, were forced to make fireworks at the school to increase funds.


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Sat 24 Mar 2001, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1740
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