10 Horrific Facts About Child Labor


Most people think of slavery and child labor as a thing of the past, but unfortunately, some estimates believe there are more slaves than ever before, and the problem with child labor has gotten worse, not better. Now, there was quite a bit of child labor going back millennia, but the difference for so long was that children tended to work with their parents, who could carefully shepherd them, pass on a useful trade, and make sure they weren’t abused. The industrial revolution changed all that, and the rest is history.

10. The Industrial Revolution Reshaped The World With A Brutal New Form Of Child Labor

The industrial revolution paved the way for massive exploitation, low key slavery, actual slavery, and generally outright abuse of workers. Considering children are the most vulnerable, they tended to be the most exploited, especially those who were orphans, or came from a large and poor family who desperately needed either money or one less mouth to feed. Before the industrial revolution, parents had taught children trades and passed on specialties, but with all the machines and factories and assembly lines, many trades became obsolete — and the new jobs simply did not pay as well.

This meant families started sending their children to work because they simply had no choice — they could not afford to survive and the child was a source of income for the family, to help feed themselves if nothing else. This was long before concepts like food stamps or social welfare even existed, and there really weren’t any child labor laws to speak of because they hadn’t been needed so much before. Before long, children were working brutally long shifts for very little pay and were not learning any actually discernibly useful skills — with the amount of abandoned or orphaned children due to the lack of any kind of social safety net as the economies of much of the world rapidly changed, the idea of children not working and simply being idle would likely have been seen as even more ridiculous.

9. Chimney Sweeps Bought Children From Poor People And Used Them As Expendable Slaves

Chimney sweeps are romanticized in the movie Mary Poppins — Dick Van Dyke talks in a horrible imitation of a cockney accent that many British people today find to be offensive at worst and laughable at best, and has a funny dance routine with other chimney sweeps that make the whole profession look entirely whimsical. However, the sad truth is that the life of a chimney sweep was absolutely horrible, and there was very little fun, joy, or dancing to be had. Chimney sweeps had a very dangerous job and the amount of soot they breathed in gave them all kinds of cancers and illnesses they didn’t even understand back then. But the bleakest part that the movie didn’t bother to show was all the child slavery.

See, chimney sweeps had a pretty awful job and they were well aware of it, so many of them felt that they needed to find a way to make it safer. Now, in the modern world someone would work to invent a safety device or a tool that helps you clean out the chimney without sticking yourself so far down it. However, this was back in the old timey days and they saw a perfectly evil solution to the whole danger problem: have an expendable pawn do the job for you. Chimney sweeps would literally buy children from poor families who were struggling to feed all of their kids, and would skirt the laws by putting it down in the books as an “apprenticeship.” Sadly, with how high mortality rates were, many of them were obviously never going to (or meant to) complete their apprenticeship in the first place. Getting stuck in a chimney flue and suffocating was an incredibly common and horrible fate that befell the young child slaves cleaning chimneys back in the day.

8. Newsies Didn’t Have Even Nearly As Fun A Lot As Depicted On Broadway

For those who don’t know, newsies were the kids in big cities back in the day, especially in New York City, who would hawk newspapers while constantly shouting out the day’s news to all within earshot in the hopes to meet their daily quota. Now, we aren’t saying the movie or the ensuing broadway play (Newsies… duh) made the life of a newsie look like fun and games, but one of the main characters that is a newsie is supposed to be the ripe old age of 17, and there are a lot of charismatic adult actors who take up a lot of screentime. The real life of a newsie would require a very depressing period drama, and not a Disney musical, to really capture the true grimness of the life of a newsie.

Usually orphans, these children would be out on the streets from a very, very young age, hawking newspapers well into the night. They often made only 30 cents a day after putting in an incredible amount of work, they had to work in all elements, and they couldn’t return papers so they would often be seen in saloons or brothels at the worst times of night, trying to finish their day’s work. Most had nowhere to sleep and would often be seen huddling in groups under stairways, trying to find warmth in each other.

When they went on strike due to the cost of newspapers rising, it was because they were fighting for their very lives — there were thousands of newsies estimated to be living in New York and an end to the pitiful livelihood they had could have been a death sentence. They may not have had a formal education, but they were determined. One of the lead strikers named Kid Blink had this to say: “Friens and feller workers. Dis is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we’se got to stick together like glue…. We know wot we wants and we’ll git it even if we is blind.” While their lives were grim, they stuck together for their rights — they had no one else to protect them.

7. Child Mining During The Industrial Revolution Was More Horrific Than You Could Imagine

We have all heard that children were once used to help out in the mines, and we are all relieved that it is no longer something that is allowed — a relic of old times. However, sadly the more appropriate context is to consider that most cultures actually didn’t force children into coal mines until the industrial revolution, and our so-called enlightened modern thinking allowed it to go on for longer than many of us are comfortable with. Children would be used for all kinds of mining jobs, but typically their days would start at one or two in the morning, and they would work for 12-14 hours straight, before going back to bed, often underground; it is said that some child miners never really got to see the light of day.

Sometimes they would be given horrifically boring jobs where they went down into a cold, dark, lonely pit and simply operated ventilated doors that let people in and out — a job where they would sometimes fall asleep because of the sheer boredom and drudgery. If they feel asleep, they would of course be soundly beaten for the infraction. Some children were used because while crawling, they could fit into tight spaces that adults could not. They would sometimes be harnessed up with chains and ropes and belts to pull loads through claustrophobic areas, never getting even close to enough rest and even less proper ventilation.

6. Kids Working In Factories Had To Deal With Cruel Punishments On Top Of Dangerous Work

When the industrial revolution started many, many children went off to factories in order to help support the family and they often suffered very abusive conditions. However, at least some children who worked in the factories did get to go home to their parents after work and show them something that they had managed to earn; the work was still dangerous and harsh, but the children had it a little bit better. Unfortunately for those children who were orphaned, working in a factory was often the only way to survive and owners got away with treating children like slaves by legally claiming they were providing room, board and other needs.

The enslaved orphaned children who lived in the factories they worked at would be awoken at very early hours and rushed off to the factory floor, sometimes being forced to carry their clothes while naked and dress on the way in order to be sure they were on time for work. As these children didn’t even have parents, the owners gave absolutely zero care toward their safety or well being and accidents and fatalities were common. These children also were often the victims of cruel punishments. One of the more awful punishments of the factory foreman was called weighting — a weight would be tied to the victim’s neck and they would have to walk around with the weight as an example to others. As you can imagine, neck and back injuries were common from this despicable practice.

5. India Estimates There Are Over One Million Child Sex Slaves In The Country

India is a very quickly growing country, and like any country going through such rapid growth, this presents some very big problems. India has issues with waste management, overcrowding in urban areas, a hodgepodge of laws and village councils that are often at odds with each other, a huge mismatch in male to female population, and a gigantic child slavery problem. Indian culture places great value on having a son to carry on the family line, so while parents still love their daughters, they will often keep having children until they have a son. This means there are many more women than there are men in India, making it even easier for there to be many more women and young women who either aren’t wanted or don’t fully have a place in society and can be exploited.

In India today, authorities estimate that there may be over one million children in the country who are involved in some form of sexual slavery. The Indian government has an enormous task on their hands when it comes to getting a handle on the problem, and with the population the way it is, their task is unlikely to get easier anytime soon. Now while the following fact doesn’t necessarily look good for India, it does make solving the problem easier that their own experts believe the vast majority of the trade only exists within the country — children are rarely being trafficked in or out for the purpose of sexual slavery.  

4. Chocolate Farming Child Slaves Tricked With Promise Of Bicycle, Beaten With Chain Instead

Chocolate farming is something that most of us have heard at least a few things about the horrors of, but we like to try our best not to think about those. A child slave who toiled in the Ivory Coast was once interviewed about his work and he said that he not only hadn’t ever gotten to try chocolate, but that as far as he was concerned, people who enjoyed chocolate were metaphorically eating his flesh. Many horror stories have emerged and they show the depths of depravity that slavers will sink to in order to increase productivity. One child slave was initially tricked thinking he would work hard and both get a bicycle and get money to send back to his family. Instead, he did not get any money, and instead was beaten with a bicycle chain when he didn’t perform well.

The few gigantic chocolate companies who buy most of the world’s chocolate have enough money to essentially buy the whole lot and institute fair labor practices if they really wanted to — or at least force the governments to actually do so themselves. However, despite international pressure, the chocolate companies keep laying down deadlines for themselves to force improvements, and then blowing right past said deadlines and laying down new ones again. The truth is that a business is amoral and exists to make a profit; if we want the chocolate companies to change, we have to apply consumer pressure. They have no reason to spend millions on something that isn’t negatively affecting their balance sheets.

3. Child Labor On US Farms Is Common And Leads To Numerous Fatalities And Injuries

Most people think of child labor in the USA as a thing very much of the past. All children must attend school and cannot drop out until they are at least 16 in most situations, and the earliest most kids can work is maybe 15 with a lot of restrictions and controls. While this is true in almost all industries, farming is the one business in the United States where you can still get your fill of child labor. Farmers simply have trouble finding enough workers period, even if they offer good pay, so the government allows farmers to have their kids work on the farm; the children still have to learn stuff like reading and writing, but are usually homeschooled.

Now, it isn’t really the education that is the problem, as the kind of child labor we are talking about here is a lot more akin to the type that we would see before the industrial revolution: a parent carefully taking care of their child with a watchful eye and showing them an entirely new trade that will be useful for them and give them a livelihood as an adult. These people are truly passing on the family business and teaching their kids a lot of skills they could use in blue collar jobs later in life, if they decided running a farm wasn’t for them. The problem is that farming equipment can be extremely dangerous, and much of the time these children simply don’t have the proper training for a lot of the tools they are using. Children are allowed to drive to a certain extent without a license on farms, and this helps lead to a lot of the injuries. Roughly 100 children die a year due to accidents with farm equipment, and thousands more are injured.

2. Children As Young As Four In Pakistan Are Kidnapped And Sold To Be Camel Jockeys

The Middle East may be known for things like harems or child marriages and such, but there is another, non-sexual form of slavery that is also extremely horrifying and has been picking up steam lately despite official efforts to ban it. Especially in the UAE, there is a camel racing circuit replete with all the kind of sleaze you would expect from old timey horse racing in the USA. Now, just racing camels wouldn’t have been an issue, but they decided that adults were simply too heavy and the wanted the camels to go faster and faster. Increasingly smaller children were used until the government banned riders under the age of 14 in 1998. Despite this, the practice is still going strong.

It is estimated that roughly 2,000 children were kidnapped from neighboring Pakistan over the course of a two year period and sold to be trained as camel jockeys. While the sport itself would not necessarily be the most dangerous child labor on its own, the reason for using children was for reduced weight, so the practice has become increasingly cruel. Many children are kidnapped at ages as young as four, and are quickly being introduced to the sport before they know it. The children are allowed almost nothing to eat so they will be lighter to make the camel faster, and get whipped often for anything they do wrong, or not well enough. Inventors have been working on robotic camel jockeys that are slowly picking up steam in the UAE — some experts hope that if the robots can be designed to be light enough, that we can someday phase out the desire for child jockeys even among the morally bankrupt.

1. Child Labor Is Actually On The Rise All Around The World, Even In The USA

The unfortunate fact is that child labor is nearly always some form of child slavery — even if other clever names are used to disguise the fact. Now, most people comfort themselves with the knowledge that even if we have more slaves than ever before, it must be because the world’s population has increased, or something similar. Most people tend to assume, at the very least, that our efforts around the world are bringing down the amount of child labor considerably and making the world a place with less suffering and sadness.

Sadly, however, we are in a much worse place than many would like to believe. The entire world may have to redouble their efforts to fight child slavery, because it is going up all around the globe. Maplecroft, a global risk assessment firm, came out with a report in 2012 stating that they had seen a 10% increase in countries where labor practices ingrained in the laws and culture posed a very serious risk to children’s safety and development. Worse yet, even the United States, which many still think of a safe haven from most of those worst abuses, is still listed as a medium risk. If we want to combat child labor around the globe, we are going to have to make more of an effort — perhaps labeling it appropriately as child slavery would be a good start.

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  1. Did you really say farm children are usually home schooled? That is a flat out lie and if makes me question the rest of your research, if you did any at all. I’m sure some farm kids are home schooled, but most of them go to regular schools.

    • We’re talking about “child labor” here, NOT a farm kid who has a modest list of chores to do. I’m sorry if you’ve got this American Gothic notion that farmers are “good, Christian folk” but a LOT of them breed large families for free slave labor. Parents like that don’t give a rat’s mangy ass about their children’s education – they’re just greedy pigs who see other people as their personal property.