Hard at Work in Factories and Mines: The Economics of Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution

Hard at Work in Factories and Mines: The Economics of Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution

Hard at Work in Factories and Mines: The Economics of Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution

Hard at Work in Factories and Mines: The Economics of Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution

Synopsis

Children have worked for centuries and continue to work. The history of the economic development of Europe and North America includes numerous instances of child labor. Manufacturers in England, France, Belgium, Germany, and Prussia as well as the United States used child labor during the initial stages of industrialization. In addition, child labor prevails currently in many industries in the Third World. This book examines the explanations for child labor in an economic context. A model of the labor market for children is constructed using the new economics of the family framework to derive the supply of child labor and the traditional labor theory of marginal productivity to derive the demand for child labor. The model is placed into a historical context and is used to test the existing supply-and-demand-induced explanations for an increase in child labor during the British Industrial Revolution. Evidence on the extent of children's employment, their specific tasks and trends in their wages from the textile industry and mining industry is used to support the argument that it was technological innovation which created a demand for child labor. Certain mechanical inventions and process innovations increased the demand for child labor in three ways: increasing number of assistants needed; increasing the substitutability between children and adults, and creating work situations that only children could fill. Specific innovations in the production of textiles and in the extraction of coal, copper and tin are highlighted to show how they favored the use of child workers over adult workers. The book concludes with a look at the current situations in developing countries where child labor is prevalent. Considerable insight is gained on the role of child labor in economic development when this historical model is applied to the contemporary situation.

Excerpt

The history of the economic development of Europe and North America includes numerous instances of child labor. Manufacturers in England, France, Belgium, Germany, Prussia as well as the United States used child labor during the initial stage of industrialization. In many cases, the employment of children was quite extensive and the conditions, hours and treatment appalling by twentieth-century standards. In Great Britain nearly half of the work force in the textile industry in 1833 was under the age of sixteen. Silk mills were the most extensive employers of children with 46 percent of its work force under sixteen, the cotton industry with 35 percent of its workers under sixteen and the flax and woollen industries employed roughly 40 percent of their workers under the age of sixteen. Further, children made up nearly half of the work force in coal mines (Tuttle 1986: 2). French industrial enterprises in 1845 employed 143,665 children under the age of sixteen, which constituted 11.7 percent of the total industrial work force. Seventy-three percent of France's industrial child laborers were employed in one of the textile industries. In fact, children comprised roughly one fifth of the work force in these industries with cotton blends the highest with 23.9 percent of the work force under age sixteen and cotton and woollen close behind with 18.3 percent and 18.6 percent, respectively (Weissbach 1989:16- 19). A similar story can be told for Belgium where the textiles were the greatest employers of children. The linen, hemp and lace industries hired 40 percent of its workers under the age of sixteen while the cotton textiles had 27 percent of its entire work force under sixteen years of age. As in Britain, the percentage of children working in coal mines was considerable with 22 percent of its employees under sixteen (Statistique de la Belgique, Recensement General 1846). Goldin and Sokoloff estimate from a sample of firms of the U. S. Federal Census of Manufactures that 23 percent of all workers in manufacturing in the Northeast in 1820 were children. Again, they found large proportions of the labor force of textile establishments were children. Their estimates in 1820 show proportions comparable to those calculated for Britain, with half of the work force in cotton firms and 41 percent in wool firms . . .

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