Enduring themes of child labour

Whilst researching the topic of child labour in the sugar industry – a practice, by the way, which remains rife today – I came across a fascinating document addressing this abuse in early 20th century Colorado, then the leading producer of sugar beet in the United States. Written for the country’s National Child Labor Committee, it shows just how little has changed one hundred years on.

The first enduring theme is that of alienation. The children who worked in the beet fields of Colorado were there with their families, and by and large this remains the case with the hundreds of thousands of children working in the cane fields today. But these families were not part of the rural farming community, at least in the Jeffersonian sense of being part of the land-owning agrarian citizenry. In Colorado, many of the workers were of East European descent and were contracted by land-owners to work for a season at a time, moving out to the fields and lending the landscape a stark ethnic geography:

The houses are really nothing but shanties, poorly constructed and equipped, and designed for temporary residence only… In several towns of the beet section they [the workers] are segregated in communities known as ‘Russiatown’, ‘St. Petersberg’ or ‘The Jungle’. They live apart from the life of the town itself, many of them not being able to speak English, and have no social intercourse with American residents.

The migrant labour regime is still prominent today. Most studies of child labour highlight outsourcing of manual harvesting as especially injurious to children, since this reduces oversight of the workforce and makes it easier to exploit both children and their parents. Moreover, migration makes it difficult for children to attend school regularly, even if they are spared forced employment in the field or migrant camp (another site of child labour).

Finally, since migrant labourers are often contracted by intermediaries who loan them money to cover travel costs, adult workers are often trapped in debt relations. The dependency of families on sub-contractors may leave children, especially adolescent girls, open to sexual exploitation. Thus what we see is differences in ethnicity, nationality, class and gender intersecting, manipulated so as to produce vulnerable groups of people with little choice but to put their children to work.

The Jungle

Above: one of the shanty-towns of the Colorado beet section (photo from National Child Labor Committee document). Below: a batey in the Dominican Republic; company ‘towns’ that housed migrant labour from Haiti and which have now become their home (photo: author’s own).








The second enduring theme is specialisation. This is not intended as praise for the use of children in the workforce, but as recognition that their inclusion is no accident. Rather, the family is seen as having its own ‘natural’ division of labour that can be reproduced within the world of farm work. No-one need go to waste. As E.P. Thompson has written of the Industrial Revolution in England, while child labour had long been used within the household economy, the real crime of the factory system was to take control of this work away from the parents or master. In the mill – just as in the capitalist field – the environment, discipline, speed and regularity of work could barely be tempered. So, back in Colorado:

Boys and girls of 7 or 8 years upwards work steadily at this task [of thinning] throughout the day bending over the plants, their nimble fingers enabling them to keep pace with the adults. The next step is hoeing; this is not so tiring as thinning because the posture of the worker is more erect, and being a heavier kind of labor it cannot be performed by the very young children. The first process in harvesting is called ‘pulling’ [the beets out of the ground] …the next process in harvesting is ‘topping’ [slicing the top of the beet off with a 16 inch knife]…Instances were found of children working from 5am to 7pm in the rush season…Children too young for these tasks are commonly left to shift for themselves and care for one another as best they can.

Today, the most hazardous aspects of sugarcane agriculture remain harvesting, along with chemical spraying. Manual harvesting involves long periods of time spent chopping thick stalks of cane with a knife or machete and injuries are common (e.g. cutting one’s fingers or legs) as is muscular-skeletal and/or skin damage after spending hours of repetitious striking and bending over in hot sunny conditions. Tools and equipment built to adult specifications also present additional risks to younger workers (is providing child-friendly machetes to enhance productivity just a step too far for our otherwise shrewd employers?).

These tasks tend to be done by adolescent children, with younger children given less physically demanding/dangerous jobs. This can include planting, weeding and stacking the sugarcane for mechanical loading. Crucially, not all work is done on the farm. Girls especially may be involved in domestic labour in the camps set up to accommodate sugarcane workers, doing chores such as washing clothes, fetching water and wood, and cooking. Finally, when there is no other place to leave them, the youngest children of all may have to accompany their families to the sugarcane fields, taking what shade they can under improvised tents and making do with gnawing on cane to quell their hunger pains.

Children Topping Beets in Colorado






Above: “It is by no means unusual to see families pulling and topping in mid-November when ice is in the furrows and keen, cold winds are blowing”  (text and photo from National Child Labor Committee document). Below: Male children of the Guaraní tribe working in the sugarcane fields that now cover much of their ancestral lands in Mato Grosso do Sul state. Much labour by girls remains out of sight in the labour camps (photo from Survival International).

Guarani cane cutters







The final theme is connivance of the state. If it is acknowledged that child labour is no accident but a planned part of the labour regime, then it must equally be acknowledged that state personnel – legislators, immigration officials, the police, labour inspectors, local politicians and even teachers – are likely to be implicated. As the investigators of the National Child Labor Committee noted in their case:

The Colorado compulsory education law requires the attendance at school of every child between 8 and 16 years of age…The law, however, is not enforced in the beet sections. Children of all ages are absent for months at a time and no action is taken. This disrupts the school, breaks down respect for the law and makes a farce of the school system.

Of the major sugar producing countries, only Cuba and India have not ratified the ILO Convention 182 which outlaws ‘hazardous work’ for under-18s. Thus in every country where abuses of children sugarcane agriculture are detailed, we can assume this is in contravention of the country’s own statute book. Yet in case after case, there are reports of authorities turning a blind eye or making only token gestures toward its eradication.

A compelling reason for this practice, of course, is that certain people profit from it. Thus its eradication is eased when children can be replaced without severe economic loss. In the US beet-growing states at the turn of the 20th century, this happened when children were replaced with cheap migrant labour (the sugar industry gaining exemption from restrictions imposed by the 1921 and 1924 US Immigration Acts). Today, mechanical harvesters and sprayers are helping to destroy jobs, and with it, child labour. However, while this may absolve particular companies of further responsibility, it does little for the ‘liberated’ children themselves. Without alternatives – schooling, or decent employment – they remain in a situation of extreme precarity. The question we need to ask here is: who will take remedial action for the harm already done?


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