The Fruits of Civilization (24-1) Child Labor

Child Labor

With limited opportunity for education, and long a source of easy exploitation, children were put to work. There was no need for strength to operate a machine, and, as industrial systems were new, there was no experienced adult labor pool. Some machines were even designed for child operators.

Most importantly to those needing laborers, a child could be paid much less, even as its productivity was comparable. This made children the labor of choice in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Children as young as 4 years worked. Beatings and long hours were the norm. Animals in preindustrial times were treated far better than children during industrialization, who, beyond being abused, were regularly mutilated or poisoned at their place of work, if not killed outright. Many working children starved to death.

The first laws against child labor were passed in Britain in 1833 and 1844. A scarcity of inspectors effectively eviscerated the legislation for decades. In the United States and continental Europe, child labor remained a norm into the 20th century. For much of the rest of the world, child exploitation remains common. Child labors powers the economies of most of sub-Saharan Africa.


India has more child laborers than any other country: estimated in 2012 to be ~45 million. ~20% work as domestic help.

Child labor and trafficking is commonly considered a symptom of poverty: destitute families sell their offspring, who end up as prostitutes and manual laborers. In India, the exploitation of children is a sign of growing wealth: a burgeoning middle class has created a surging demand for domestic workers. These jobs are often filled by children.

There is a huge, huge demand. ~ Indian lawyer Ravi Kant

Indian law offers only limited safeguards against child exploitation, and enforcement of those safeguards is practically nonexistent. Public attitudes are permissive.

There is no fear of the law. ~ Ravi Kant

Even in the lowest rungs of the middle class, families often have at least 1 live-in servant. The well-off have a retinue of attendants in various capacities.

A kidnapping industry arose to meet demand. Every 6 minutes, a child goes missing in India. Over 90,000 children are officially reported missing every year (2011 statistic).

The cheapest and most vulnerable workforce is children – girls in particular. The demand for cheap labour is contributing to trafficking of children from remote parts of India to big cities. ~ Indian children’s rights advocate Kailash Satyarthi