Can you imagine working long hours each day, six or seven days a week in a coal mine? Well, less than one hundred years ago, many American children did just that. If you lived at that time and were the son or daughter of a wealthy family, you would probably spend your days much as you do now, at school. However, if you were the son or daughter of poor parents or immigrants, your life would be much different. You might work in a mill, mine, canning shed, or field for many hours each day for very little money.
Many children worked in mills because they were small, light, and had quick fingers. They would change the bobbins of thread while standing on top of the machines themselves, for they were too short to reach them from the floor. This was quite dangerous, for children would slip and lose a finger or foot. Also, some little girls might be scalped if their hair got caught in the machines. Besides being dangerous, mines were also unhealthy. The younger boys who worked at the mine were called breaker boys. They did not actually work in the mine itself. They sat on long benches while coal flowed along beneath their feet and picked out the bits of rock from the coal. These places were poorly lit, and the boys had constant coughs because of the dust. The moving coal would often cut their fingers, and they could hardly stand up staight because of leaning over the coal for so many hours each day. Also, boys would sometimes fall and get smothered or crushed in the huge piles of coal. Worse yet, when the boys turned twelve they would be sent down into the mines where there was a constant threat of cave-ins and explosions.
Canning sheds were places that were often poorly lit where children of an even younger age worked alongside their parents shucking oysters or peeling fruits or vegetables. Farms also employed children. Unfortunately, the children who worked on farms were usually the sons or daughters of migrant farm workers, they weren't just helping out on their parents' farms. Working on a farm was also dangerous, for sharp tools were used to harvest and cut the crops.
Modern laws against child labor would not exist if it weren't for a large movement of people devoting much of their lives to helping the poor and working children. Two people who worked hard to end child labor were Lewis Hine and Mother Jones. Lewis Hine and Mother Jones both worked to help child laborers around the time of the Great Depression. Lewis Hine was a photographer who worked with the National Child Labor Orginization to publicise child labor. He spent many years traveling around the United States taking pictures of these children. His pictures helped many people to realize how serious child labor really was. Mother Jones did not become involved in labor demonstrations until she was in her sixties, and did not become involved in the labor of children until later, but she lived to be one hundred. She lead many marches and strikes to help both adult and child workers to get higher wages and better working conditions.
Although people have done much to change laws about child labor and to make sure that all children get a good education, there still is much to be done. Some child labor still does exist in the United States, but it is counties like Honduras and El Salvador that have major problems. In El Salvador, $.56 an hour and in Honduras $.38 an hour are common salaries. The United States is the largest importer of goods made by child laborers. If you find out about a certain company that uses child labor, you can help to change this by writing to your senator, congressman, or to the company that is doing this.
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