A report by the International Labour Organization indicates that over 115 million children around the world, engage in dangerous and life-threatening jobs. Unfortunately, the practice of employing children in dangerous jobs is not a recent trend. A trip through history proves that society has repeatedly failed to protect the innocence of children by forcing them into jobs that put their lives at risk.
Dangerous jobs include any tasks that expose a child to health risks, denies a child playtime, prevents the child from getting an education or denies the child human interaction. Additionally, children should not work for long hours and should not perform adult jobs, unless they are helping in the home under supervision. Some of the most dangerous jobs for children throughout history include:
In the Victorian era, before Britain put its houses in order, young boys and in some cases girls, made a living by scavenging the waste and garbage flowing along the Thames River. They would wait when the tide was low and dive into the murk searching for coal, iron, wood and on lucky days, jewelry. The long time spent in the dirty water continually exposed the children to water borne diseases. They were also at risk of being swept by the waves, as there was no warning on when the tide would return. The compensation on the little ‘treasures’ they found in the murk was also very low, forcing them to continually risk their lives.
2. Child Soldiers
While many people think that the practice is a reserve for war-torn regions in Africa, history proves that children have been in the battlefield since before the world wars; children played a role in the Jewish resistance and in Stalin’s Red Arm. Other countries that have sent the innocent souls to the battlefield include Myanmar, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia. Sending children to war denies them access to education and exposes them to horrors that traumatize them for life if they are lucky to survive. Children are also more vulnerable as they lack the physical strength to fight enemies, who are often older and went through a proper military training.
In the rise of the newspaper industry, there were young newspaper boys and girls (newsies) who risked their lives on a daily basis trying to ‘spread’ the news and make a buck. Unlike the happy, carefree lifestyle portrayed by the media, newsies had to fight each other for the best spot to hawk their newspapers. They also had to jump onto trams for free transport, where they often ended up falling on the railway, suffering fatal injuries. In some cases, the injuries worked to their advantage as they made more sales from sympathetic buyers. In addition, working on the streets exposed them to gangs and criminal cartels as well.
4. Mule Scavengers
Cotton millers in the industrial revolution relied on young children to clean the cotton and dirt under the spinning mules while the mules were running. The practice often cost children their fingers and several body parts, including maiming them to death. They few survivors suffered lifelong respiratory disease from all the dust and psychological breakdown from the noise. Apart from working as scavengers, children were hired as laborers in different factories working long hours without adequate water or food.
5. Chimney Sweeping
In the Victorian era, boys as young as five years old were sent to climb up chimneys to clean off the soot. Often, they came down from the chimneys full of soot with bleeding knees and elbows, as most chimneys were narrow and twisted. Chimney Masters would sometimes light fires to force the boys to climb faster or to get them out of the chimneys accusing them of pretending to be stuck. The work was dangerous as a lot of boys got stuck and suffocated to death. They also suffered respiratory diseases at a young age.
6. Coal Miners
Coal mines favored child laborers as they were cheap and small enough to maneuver the tight spaces. Sadly, the conditions in the work mines forced children to squint for up to eighteen hours in the darkness with noises around them affecting their eyesight and hearing, respectively. Children also suffered respiratory diseases from the poor ventilation and exposure to dust. Other dangers of working the coalmines included rat infestation, danger of death or injury from explosions and cave-ins and spinal deformation for bending for prolonged periods.
7. Pure Collectors & Mixers
Leather factories often hired children to collect dog muck on the street for a small fee. However, the children who had it worse were those working in the tanneries as mixers. They were hired to mix the dog murk with sheep brain and urine with their feet until the mixture was smooth to the master’s satisfaction. The job exposed them to infections from the muck and urine, infecting them with diseases such as the acute disease, anthrax.
8. Street Sweepers
To earn a living and help their poor families, children in the Victorian era swept the streets of wealthy neighborhoods hoping to get a tip. The streets were often full of horse dropping exposing the kids to a wide range of diseases; horse droppings were a serious environmental and health hazard before the invention of motorcars. The kids also had to fight each other to get the best spots. In addition, another serious risk of sweeping horse droppings was attacks from nervous horses along the streets.
9. Matchstick Dipping
Young girls in the industrial revolution were hired by matchstick factories to dip the matchsticks in white phosphorous. Exposure to white phosphorous causes phossy jaw (a disease that rips off the jaw leading to infection and painful death in the end), yet the children were even forced to eat at their workstations. The white phosphorous clung to everything, including their clothes, thus significantly increasing the exposure. The practice continued for a while, until strikes in the companies forced industrialists to replace the white phosphorous with red phosphorous, which has relatively fewer health risks.
Every conflict thrives on information from spies; over history, children have served as spies in major battles and secret wars that history attempts to hide. Dictators such as Romanian Nocolae Ceauscescu, took it a notch higher employing children to spy on their families and teachers. Sadly, the use of children as spies is still rife, with several conflict zones relying on child informants; using children as spies, utterly exposes them to the enemy. In addition, it causes long-term psychological effects as spy training is often done in inhumane conditions.
Injustices among children are as old as human life. Although governments around the world have adopted laws that protect children against dangerous jobs, there is still a large number of children working in inhumane conditions. The strict laws against child labor have led to an increase in child trafficking and slavery, where children are locked up in facilities away from their families and loved ones. While there are several human rights groups and governments fighting for children, the safety of children should be everyone’s responsibility.
On the flip side, children must learn values such as hard work and responsibility. Parents and guardians can assign children tasks around the house such as cleaning, laundry, dishwashing, making the bed, babysitting, tending the garden or any other age-appropriate task that wouldn’t risk their lives yet teach them how to be a responsible human being.
Do you think that child trafficking and slavery were caused due to the strict laws, or do you think these laws have indeed protected several tortured children? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.