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Child labour in some form or the other has always existed in societies all over the world. Children used to accompany their parents while working in the fields. Moreover they were also expected to help with household chores as well as taking care of the sick and elderly. As most of the work was being done under the watchful eyes of the parents, instances of exploitation were rare. Even today work of this sort is not considered exploitative.

The worst forms of the exploitation of children started during the Industrial Revolution. It was at this time that machinery took over many functions formerly performed by hand and was centralized in large factories. There was a large scale structural shift in employment patterns. Many artisans lost their jobs and were forced to work in these factories. But the owners of these factories realized that operating many of these machines did not require adult strength, and children could be hired much more cheaply than adults.

Children had always worked, especially in farming. But factory work was hard. A child with a factory job might work 12 to 18 hours a day, six days a week, to earn a dollar. Many children began working before the age of 7, tending machines in spinning mills or hauling heavy loads. The factories were often damp, dark, and dirty. Some children worked underground, in coal mines. The working children had no time to play or go to school, and little time to rest. They often became ill.

Many of the jobs that these children specialized in were very dangerous. E.g.: The youngest children in the textile factories were usually employed as scavengers and piecers. Scavengers had to pick up the loose cotton from under the machinery. This was extremely dangerous as the children were expected to carry out the task while the machine was still working. While the piecers had the job of fixing broken threads. It is estimated that these piecers walked almost 20 miles in a single day.

Another barbaric practice followed in Victorian times was the use of children as chimney sweeps. Children were also employed to work in coal mines to crawl through tunnels too narrow and low for adults. They also worked as errand boys, crossing sweepers, shoe blacks, or selling matches, flowers and other cheap goods. Some children undertook work as apprentices to respectable trades, such as building or as domestic servants. By 1810 about 2,000,000 children were working 50 to 70 hours a week. About 2/3rds of the total workers in the textile industry were children.
Church and labor groups, teachers, and many other people were outraged by such cruelty. They began to press for reforms. The English writer Charles Dickens helped publicize the evils of child labor with his novel Oliver Twist. Two Factory Acts were implemented in 1802 and 1809. Both these acts set limits on the maximum number of hours that a child was allowed to work in a day. But the implementation of these laws was lax and it had very little effect.

In the United States it took many years to outlaw child labour. Connecticut passed a law in 1813 saying that working children must have some schooling. By 1899 a total of 28 states had passed laws regulating child labor. Today all the states and the U.S. Government have laws regulating child labour. These laws have cured the worst evils of children's working in factories. But some kinds of work are not regulated. Children of migrant workers, for example, have no legal protection. Farmers may legally employ them outside of school hours. The children pick crops in the fields and move from place to place, so they get little schooling.

In India child labour has always existed in the agricultural sector. Children and their parents used to work together in the farms. Moreover the task of taking the cattle to graze was always allotted to children. Although this work was hard and tiring, it did not lead to a worsening of their future prospects. Schooling was not available in most villages and most of the jobs were still in the agricultural sector. So this work served as training for their future. Large scale exploitation of children in India began with the arrival of the British. Just as the case was in Great Britain, the new industrialists started hiring children who were forced to work in inhuman conditions. Laws against child labour were passed under Employment of Children Act of 1938. These attempts at legislation failed as they failed to address the root cause of child labour in India: poverty. Until and unless the populace was brought out of poverty, it was impossible to take the children out of the labour force.


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