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Reflecting on child labor

Deborah Levison’s research and her colleague’s photos provide remarkable windows into children’s work around the world, rural and urban.

A good colleague and friend of mine, professor Deborah Levison at the University of Minnesota, has spent more than 20 years studying child labor around the world. She’s working on a book about her findings, perhaps entitled “Kids Should Work.” Despite many laws formally forbidding child labor, Levison’s research finds that children are working all around the world, including in our own region. In recent years, she’s teamed up with a photographer who captured many of them on film. Levison has curated a virtual exhibit of the photos, “Seeing Child Labor.” 

I remember visiting Egypt in the 1990s with my 16-year-old son, David. In a rickety railroad car traveling back down the Nile from a boat trip, we watched families walking out into the cane fields with their children. My son asked me, “Why aren’t they in school?” It was a perfect opportunity to speak about rural poverty and the nature of agricultural work.

photo of article author
Ann Markusen
Levison has developed a nuanced view of child labor, arguing while it is a necessity for many low-income families, it is also a great training ground, preparing kids for a work life and helping them understand how economies work. She believes that work for pay or income can be combined, hypothetically, with schooling. Of course, it can be exploitative as well. For that reason, the U.S. and many other countries have historically prohibited child labor. For a historical account, see https://www.history.com/topics/industrial-revolution/child-labor.

We’ve all experienced and observed child labor in our own society. In farm families like my Walli husband’s friend June Collman’s, boys and girls alike milked cows, pastured them, raised chickens, collected and cleaned eggs, and helped with the plowing and haying. In cities, some of us delivered papers. I had a secret garden in a swamp near our Minneapolis home where I raised beans, among other items, coached by my father, and sold them to neighbors for a pittance a bag. I was proud of my beans!

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In high school, my parents encouraged us to work for spending money. I landed a job at Perkins, then a pancake house in my neighborhood. I worked evenings and most of the day on Sunday, starting early in the morning. I had the lowliest job: placing silverware, napkins and filled water glasses on the tables. On Sunday mornings, our busiest, I had to refill the syrup pitchers, from hefty cans in the kitchen, before they went, filled, through the dishwasher. By early afternoon, when the church crowds had happily departed, I would walk home, my hair and fingernails full of creepy blueberry, apricot and maple syrup. On weekends, I babysat for pay.

Working as children, even if it’s unpaid chores like dishes, lawn-mowing, and shoveling, creates respect for the challenges and quality of work, and pride in good results. By the time we were teens, our parents paid us something for these – I don’t remember how much.

My son, David, was eager to work at age 16. What learning experiences!  He first worked for our modestly sized public library, where his after-school job was reshelving books. He came home after the first week and  complained, sticking his lower lip out, “I’m working under five layers of women, and they don’t get along with each other!” I replied, “Well, welcome to the sociology of the workplace!” He went on to work at temp jobs like shelving at some version of Office Max and, in a semester off in Washington, D.C., shelving videos for a television station. All of these were minimum-wage jobs. During college for a summer, he worked on the fiber optics assembly line in suburban Minneapolis. All of his co-workers were men of color.

Levison’s research and her colleague’s photos provide remarkable windows into children’s work around the world, rural and urban. A picture is, truly, worth a thousand words. I encourage you to view the virtual exhibit. Share it with your kids, your friends. Talk with others about their work experiences, help younger people understand the upsides and downsides of the many occupations possible — and that they can change jobs, whether in the same occupation or leaving one that dissatisfies for another.

Above all, these photos help place us alongside, for the viewing moments, the millions of children who are working at young ages, possibly the best way for us to understand their economies, the ubiquity of poverty worldwide, and the awesome spirit of young people working under challenging circumstances.

Ann Markusen is a professor emerita, University of Minnesota; principal of Markusen Economic Research; and a resident of Red Clover Township.

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