Introduction—show both sides, symbolism
Critics, conditions of working
Contemporary child labor in developing countries, organizations
Child labor has long been a symbol of the exploitation of workers and the immorality brought
about by the Industrial Revolution.
John Redman, who had experience working in the textile trade at the age of eight, asserts that
child abuse is not an inherent component of the factory system. In his testimony, Redman says,
“There may be instances, but generally they are as well treated in mills as any where else. Those
parents who look after their children now, and place them now with masters who treat them well,
will manage them well… those parents who now place their children, for the sake of higher
wages, with spinners who ill-treat them, rather than with neighbors or friends, will, I suppose,
treat them in the same way as they do now, that is, neglect them.” This testimony demonstrates
how the treatment of children within the factories was not necessarily worse than the treatment
they received within the home. Furthermore, the parents, by deciding which factory owner their
child would work for, were the main determinants of how the children were treated.
Societal expectations also contributed to the use of child labor. According to societal standards, a
“busy” child could be equated to a good child. People believed that children would grow up to
become self-sufficient and independent individuals if they adopted a strong work ethic.
From a more pragmatic approach, historians have also looked at child labor in the Industrial
Revolution from an economic perspective. Clark Nardinelli makes the argument that the
examination of child labor should begin with their primary economic role in the family, that is,
as consumers. To counter the economic burden children place on the family, children should also
be producers and make their contributions. Furthermore, the reality of the times was that many
families and children were living in deplorable conditions even before industrialization and
factory work started. Factory work, then, becomes more than an obligation for children to help
balance the family
Professor Ludwig von Mises suggests that this living standard caused the
families to welcome factory work because “it saved them, in the strict sense of the term, from
death by starvation” (
Acknowledging the economic reality of the situation and the societal pressures of the times plays
an important role in the rationalization of child labor. This being said, the rationality of the
factors involved does not necessarily condone the outcome. We now turn to the advocates of
reforming the child labor system used in Britain’s Industrial Revolution.