Throughout the course of history, children have been in the workforce. For a long time the sorts of jobs that children were involved in were in industries like agriculture or retail. Children would routinely go out with their fathers each morning to help in the fields or to aid in the selling of merchandise in their stores.
With the dawn of the Industrial Revolution the face of child labour changed drastically. Jobs that once required the strength of an adult were now being performed by machines. Since strength was no longer needed, children, who could be paid next to nothing for their time and effort, could now be employed for the same jobs.
Starting younger than the age of seven, children would typically work 12 to 18 hours, six days a week. Tending machines in damp, dark factories or hauling very heavy loads through narrow shafts in coal mines were the jobs of choice – for someone looking to put a child to work. Other jobs that were popular for child workers were chimney sweeping, construction, retail and prostitution.
In the early 1800s there were about 2 million children employed in Western nations. Among these were those who worked all night in glass factories, fenced in with barbed wire designed "to keep the young imps inside". The "young imps", as they were described by a factory owner in Massachusetts, were boys aged 12 and under who would carry hot glass throughout the night. The wage for such a service would range between $0.40 and $1.10.
Bertrand Russell, in The Impact of Science on Society, wrote, "Children had to be beaten to keep them from falling asleep while at work; in spite of this, many failed to keep awake and were mutilated or killed. Parents had to submit to the infliction of these atrocities upon their children, because they themselves were in a desperate plight."
Even though it was common practice to employ children for dangerous work, numerous groups spoke out against the practice, trying to convince their governments to enact laws to protect the rights of child workers – though laws passed were largely ineffective. In 1819 "Factory Acts" were passed in the United Kingdom, claiming that children under the age of 18 were no longer allowed to work longer than 12 hours per day, though it was not widely enforced. By 1833 a new law was passed, stating that children between 11 and 18 should work no more than 12 hours per day, children between 9 and 11 should work no more than 8 hours, and children under 9 were no longer allowed to work. Even with these new laws and regulations in place the number of children in the workforce continued to climb. By 1910 there were an estimated 2 million children under the age of 15 employed in the United States alone.
While the number of children employed in the developed world may have dropped significantly since that time, in the developing world the numbers are still very high. There are currently an estimated 218 million child labourers around the world, which works out as 14% of all children between the age of 5 and 17 worldwide. The highest incidence of child labour is in the southern half of Africa. Of those 218 million children in the workforce, 150 million are employed in agriculture, 48 million are in services, and 20 million are working in industrial jobs.
While these numbers are very high, in reality they are probably much higher. With the lack of birth certificates and general record keeping in poorer parts of the under-developed world added to the fact that a lot of child labourers being kept hidden away from the public eye, getting an accurate number very difficult.
While it may seem like abolishing child labour would be the best thing to do, it is a tricky situation. UNICEF conducted a study which found that "after the Child Labor Deterrence Act was introduced in the US, an estimated 50,000 children were dismissed from their garment industry jobs in Bangladesh, leaving many to resort to jobs such as "stone-crushing, street hustling, and prostitution" – jobs that are "more hazardous and exploitative than garment production". The study suggests that boycotts are "blunt instruments with long-term consequences, that can actually harm rather than help the children involved." (taken from "The State of the World's Children" – 1997).