The development of British economy in the 19th century was rapid and, to a significant extent, this progress was the result of the early industrial growth of the country. Naturally, the rapid development of industries in 19th century Britain led to the increasing need in labor force.
Adult labor force represented by men solely was insufficient at the beginning of the century that led to the growing exploitation of women and child labor that was used under the impact of purely commercial motives but not moral or ethical ones.
At the same time, the employers widely implemented child labor searching for increased profitability and believing that child labor would bring them more benefits at relatively low costs. However, their profits were relevant only in a short-term perspective while in the long-term perspective child labor turned out to be not so profitable as it might have seen to be at the beginning.
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Nevertheless, the 19th century was characterized by a significant number of children employees which worked in different industries and whose labour was apparently extremely difficult and produced a negative impact on their health, physical and educational development and could not have a positive effect on the further economic development of the country where industries grew more and more complicated. This is why eventually it became apparent that the benefits of child labor did not outweigh the costs.
The criticism of child labor
Speaking about child labor in 19th century Britain, it is necessary to point out that, regardless the wild spread of child labor in rapidly growing industry, this problem was quite arguably and even in that epoch it was severely criticized. However, it is also necessary to admit that there were also the supporters of the exploitation of children who stood on the ground that economic benefits of child labor would outweigh costs.
Unquestionably, it is possible to find the argument in favor of both views but, to fully realize the impact of child labor, it is necessary to discuss the effects of child labor not only in purely economic terms but also regarding the social development and future perspectives of British society. In this respect, it is getting to be obvious that despite possible economic benefits of child labor its wide use affected dramatically British society and, what is more important, it affected the national health and potential of younger generations that had been forced to work on factories since the early age. For instance, Engels underlines that the death rates in cities was extremely high caused “chiefly by the heavy mortality among children in the working-class” (53) and he also indicates at the fact that children in cities suffer more from a variety of diseases compared to children in countryside basically due to poorer conditions of life and child labour (Engels 53-54).
Moreover, it is necessary to underline that children were unprotected for there were no trade unions behind them and, as Engels points out, man worker in a better position to the extent that “the competition neither of women and children nor machinery has so far weakened their organized strength” (5).
In such a way, it is possible to presuppose that the long-term effects of child labor in 19th century Britain would be rather negative and the possible short-term benefits of child exploitation could hardly outweigh the costs the whole society and the future generations of British people would have paid.
The analysis of effects of child labor
The objective study of child labor is possible only from the establishment of a definite cause and effect relationship between child labor proper and its effects. In this respect, it should be pointed out that child labor in 19ht century Britain was the norm of life and different industries amply exploited children. At the same time, it should be said that the children did not stop working at factories as they grew older. In stark contrast, the earlier children started to work at factories the higher was the probability that they will spend the rest of their professional life doing the same or similar job.
Practically, this means that the effects of child labour should not be viewed only in terms of the effects of the labour on children proper but it is also necessary to take into consideration the general effect of child labour on the work, life, and health of the working class since adult workers in 19th century Britain started their work at very early age.
In such a way, it is possible to state that child labor influenced the general position of the working class since the involvement of children in 19th century Britain in industrial occupations were extremely high. At the same time, it is obvious that child labor affected the development of children dramatically since hard work since early age inevitably produces a negative impact on children health. Moreover, as their health deteriorates the effectiveness of their work steadily decreases and the older, the workers are, the worse their health became. As a result, it would be quite logical to state that British workers undermined their health in their childhood and it was quite natural that their physical and moral state gradually deteriorated that could not fail to negatively influence the effectiveness and productivity of their work (Cunningham 1991). The latter was particularly important in 19th century Britain where the role of manual labor was still quite substantial.
In such a way, it is possible to estimate that in the 19th century Britain children were forced to work since the early age that affected their development both physical and intellectual dramatically. This influence was rather negative than positive and led to the deterioration of workers health, their low professional level because of the lack of essential academic knowledge that naturally contributed to the lower effectiveness and productivity of their work at the adult age.
Evidence of the negative impact of child labor
In fact, the use of child labor in the 19th century was motivated by possible economic profits employers can gain form the exploitation of children. At first glance, it seems as if the general economic effect of child labor could be rather a positive-negative as it provided factories with a cheap labor force and, at the same time, the number of children that could be employed was often higher than the number of adult workers.
It is not a secret that the number of children working in British factories was quite substantial and often it was even higher than the number of adult workers or very close to it. For instance, as the Table 1 (Lavaletter 2001) shows, the number of children working in cotton mills in Lancashire in total approached 2,500 workers who had not reached the age of 17, while along with the workers under the age of 21 they constituted the majority of all workers.
In such a way, it is an undeniable fact that children played an important role in the labor market of 19th century Britain and it is obvious that employees could hardly fully substitute children if child labor was totally forbidden at once. Consequently, it is logical to presuppose that the elimination of child labor would lead to a profound crisis in the labor market and deterioration of the position of British at large. Moreover, it seemed as if child labor was quite beneficial for employers since they could employ a large number of employees whose wages were incomparably lower than wages of adult workers.
However, the seemingly beneficial employment of children, in actuality, was not so profitable. On analyzing the level of wages, it is necessary to remember that the productivity of child labor was significantly lower compared to the productivity and effectiveness of work of adult employees. In such a situation, children could compete with adult employees only due to the larger number. It means that in order to achieve the higher level of effectiveness and productivity of child labor, employers needed to employ a larger number of children. In this respect, returning the examples given above, it is possible to estimate that the benefits from the lower wages, which were practically twice lower than that of adults, were minimized by the larger number of child workers employed. In a combination with the lower effectiveness and productivity of child labor, it is hardly possible to estimate that the general benefits of the child labor would have overcome those of labor of adult workers.
However, in the analysis of the effects of child labor, it is also necessary to take into consideration not only current or short-term effects but long-term effects as well. In this respect, it should be said that it is an undeniable fact that in the 19th-century British industry grew more and more complicated. The implementation of new technologies led to the higher demands to the professional level of employees. In such a situation, it is obvious that by the end of the century the effectiveness of child labor decreased dramatically along with the growth of the technological progress. The main reason was the need of professional education of workers and, at least elementary, academic knowledge. For instance, Engels argues that “the few day schools at the command of the working-class are available only for the smallest minority, and are bad besides” (54). Moreover, even those children who managed to attend schools did not have any positive academic results and state policy was inefficient since “manufacturers employed as teachers worn out operatives, to whom they sent the children two hours daily… but the children learned nothing” (Engels 82). Naturally, children who were forced to work since early age could not receive even elementary education and, consequently, they became practically inefficient and even useless in industries which were considered to be highly technological at that epoch.
Also, it is necessary to point out that there was another important problem. Paradoxically, child labor provoked the problem of unemployment. As Cunningham underlines, “there are… evidence … which suggest that at any point in the period there was a large number of children for whom no work was available” (116).
Furthermore, it is also necessary to remember the negative impact of labor on children’s health and development. It is evident that the work of children in factories could not fail to deteriorate their health. In fact, physically their organisms were not fully developed and constructed. This is why the hard work and unbearable conditions of labor prevented children from healthy and harmonious development. As a result, they had been physically exhausted since very early age and it was quite natural that by their adulthood employees could not fully realize their potential. Practically, it means that the effectiveness of the work of adult employees were lower than it could potentially be as they were forced to work in their childhood and could not normally develop physically. At the same time, the effectiveness and productivity of child labor were also substantially lower than those of adults. In such a way, economically, employees could not fully benefit from high effectiveness and productivity of work of both children and adults.
Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that despite arguable short-term benefits, child labor basically had negative effects. In fact, child labor undermined British labor market since, on the one hand, it created additional competition to adult employees, on the other hand, it was not very effective and it is only due to lower wages and a large number of children child labor could be beneficial in a short-term perspective. On the other hand, it is obvious that child labor prevented children from opportunities to receive education and undermined their health. Unquestionably, in the long-term perspective, consequences of such exploitation of children could be disastrous or, at least, quite negative, since the lack of education and poor health decreased dramatically the effectiveness and productivity of work of employees. Moreover, these problems also made workers who had been working since their childhood less competitive in the labor market. As a result, it is possible to estimate that the benefits of child labor were scarce while the negative consequences mentioned above were too significant to keep the exploitation of children. No wonder that by the end of the century the share of child labor in the labor market of Britain had decreased dramatically.
Cunningham, H. (1991) Children of the Poor. Oxford: Blackwells.
Cunningham, H. (1990) “The employment and unemployment of Children in Enland c. 1680-1851”. Past and Present, No. 126, Feb., 115-150.
Engels, F. (1994) Condition of the working class in England in 1844. New York: World Classics.
Harriss, J. and P. De Renzio (1998) Missing Link or Analytically Missing? The Concept of Social Capital. Development Studies Institute. London: London School of Economics.
Hobbs, S. and J. McKechnie (1997) Child Employment in Britain: A Social and Psychological Analysis. Edinburgh, The Stationery Office.
Horrell, S. and J. Humphries. “The exploitation of Little Children: Child Labor and the Family Economy in the industrial revolution. Explorations” in Economic History, vol. 32, 485 -516
Grootaert, C. and R. Kanbur (1995) “Child Labour: An Economic Perspective”, International Labour Review, 134 (6): 187-203.
Lavaletter, M. (2001) “A Thing of the Past? Child Labour in Britain in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries”. Business History, January, 1, 2001.
Prout A and A. (eds.), (2003) “Constructing and Deconstructing Childhood; Contemporary Issues” in the Sociological Study of Childhood. London: The Falmer Press.
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