FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

On the Virtues of Child Labor

We’re not advocating or promoting the practice of child labor in Third World or “emerging” nations. Indeed, if I had the power to fix all that needed fixing, I (like most people) would start by creating a world where every child was provided a stable, loving family, exemplary nutrition, free education, an appreciation of modern art, and an abundance of creative free-play. Basically, have them all live like white kids from the better parts of Manhattan.

Moreover, as a labor writer and former union representative, I’m well aware of labor’s role (going back to before Mary “Mother Jones” Harris) in abolishing child labor in the U.S. The drive to outlaw child labor in this country wasn’t led by Congress or the Church or philanthropists. It was led by America’s labor unions.

But there’s a side to child labor that is not only complicated, it’s riven with paradox. For one thing, when I lived in India, those of us who objected to young girls operating looms in Kashmiri rug factories didn’t have a problem with children working (“Little House on the Prairie” style) on their family farms—girls sewing, helping with the cooking, feeding the chickens, and boys caring for livestock, harvesting, and cleaning the barn.

It’s easy to overlook (or dismiss) the fact that back when the U.S. was still mainly a rural economy—and before there was free public education (free elementary schooling wasn’t available to all Americans until near the end of the 19th century)—children routinely put in almost as many hours of work as the adults did. Not only did these kids do the work, the work they did actually mattered. It wasn’t done to “build character”; it was done to prevent the farm from failing.

Another thing that’s easy to overlook (or dismiss) is that virtually every society in history that evolved from a rural economy to an industrial economy went through its “sweatshop” period. A society doesn’t go from a hard scrapple, dawn-to-dark agricultural existence to gleamingly clean, air-conditioned assembly lines overnight.

That level of industrial evolution generally requires a transitional period of a generation or two, and unfortunately, that “transition” takes the form of grungy sweatshops. Europe experienced it, the U.S. experienced it, and the Third World is experiencing it.

Also, the abolition of child labor in the U.S. wasn’t universally welcomed. Far from it. To poor families living on the precarious edge of sustainability, losing the precious income provided by their children could mean the difference between scratching out a living and being thrown into abject poverty. It’s no exaggeration to say that, as noble and humanitarian-minded as the abolition of child labor was, it also resulted in the ruination of many families.

Which brings us to the Third World. When I lived in India many years ago I was taken to task by a college political science professor, a member of the CPI (Communist Party of India), who regarded my objections to child labor (I had seen 10-year old boys running lathes in a haphazard machine shop) not only as sanctimonious meddling, but as a form of “cultural imperialism.”

Communist or not, this professor recognized the stark realities of the marketplace, one of which was that, like it or not, these children were providing a valuable contribution to their parents, a contribution that, undeniably, was helping to keep the family unit together bodily and spiritually.

When I tried arguing that relegating 10-year old children to factory work (instead of sending them to school) was a self-perpetuating proposition—that without the benefit of an education these 10-year olds would one day be 20-year olds, still consigned to menial labor—he flatly rejected it.

Maybe it was pride, maybe it was being sick to death of Americans preaching to the world, or maybe it was a valid observation, but he insisted this phenomenon was transitory.

As for “self-perpetuation,” he reminded me that child labor hadn’t “perpetuated” itself in either Europe or the U.S., so why would it perpetuate itself in Asia? He politely urged me to butt out of Indian affairs.

More articles by:

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
December 13, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
The  FBI: Another Worry in the National Security State
Rob Urie
Establishment Politics are for the Rich
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: That’s Neoliberalism for You
Paul Street
Midnight Ramble: A Fascist Rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania
Joan Roelofs
The Science of Lethality
Joyce Nelson
Buttigieg and McKinsey
Joseph Natoli
Equally Determined: To Impeach/To Support
Charles Pierson
The National Defense Authorization Act Perpetuates the Destruction of Yemen
REZA FIYOUZAT
An Outrageous Proposal: Peace Boats to Iran
Andrew Levine
A Plague on Both Their Houses, Plus a Dozen Poxes on Trump’s
David Rosen
Mortality Rising: Trump and the Death of the “American Dream”
Lee Hall
Donald Trump Jr., Mongolian Sheep Killer
Dave Lindorff
The Perils of Embedded Journalism: ‘Afghan Papers’ Wouldn’t Be Needed If We Had a Real Independent News Media
Brian Cloughley
Human Rights and Humbug in Washington
Stephen Leas
Hungry for a Livable Planet: Why I Occupied Pelosi’s Office for 13 Days
Saad Hafiz
Pakistan Must Face Its Past
Lawrence Davidson
Deteriorating Climates: Home and Abroad
Cal Winslow
The End of the Era: Nineteen Nineteen
Louis Proyect
If Time Magazine Celebrates Greta Thunberg, Why Should We?
Thomas Drake
Kafka Down Under: the Threat to Whistleblowers and Press Freedom in Australia
Thomas Knapp
JEDI Mind Tricks: Amazon Versus the Pentagon and Trump
Jesse Jackson
Trump’s War on the Poor
Michael Welton
Seeing the World Without Shadows: the Enlightenment Dream
Ron Jacobs
The Wind That Shook the Barley: the Politics of the IRA
Rivera Sun
Beyond Changing Light Bulbs: 21 Ways You Can Stop the Climate Crisis
Binoy Kampmark
The Bloomberg Factor: Authoritarianism, Money and US Presidential Politics
Nick Pemberton
Ideology Shall Have No Resurrection
Rev. Susan K. Williams Smith
What Trump and the GOP Learned From Obama
Ramzy Baroud
‘Elected by Donors’: the University of Cape Town Fails Palestine, Embraces Israel
Cesar Chelala
Unsuccessful U.S. Policy on Cuba Should End
Harry Blain
The Conservatism of Impeachment
Jill Richardson
Standardized Tests are Biased and Unhelpful
Norman Solomon
Will the Democratic Presidential Nomination Be Bought?
Howard Lisnoff
The One Thing That US Leaders Seem to Do Well is Lie
Jeff Cohen
Warren vs. Buttigieg Clash Offers Contrast with Sanders’ Consistency
Mel Gurtov
The Afghanistan Pentagon Papers
Gaither Stewart
Landslide … to Totalitarianism
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
How Blaming Nader in 2000 Paved the Way for Today’s Neo-Fascism
Steve Early
In Re-Run Election: LA Times Journalist Wins Presidency of NewsGuild 
Sarah Anderson
A Holiday Comeback for Toys ‘R’ Us?
Sherry Brennan
Cutting Food Aid Promotes Hunger Not Work
David Swanson
If You’re Not Busy Plotting Nonviolent Revolution for Peace and Climate, You’re Busy Dying
Nicky Reid
Sorry Lefties, Your Impeachment is Bullshit
John Kendall Hawkins
The Terror Report You Weren’t Meant to See
Susan Block
Krampus Trumpus Rumpus
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail