Conducts research and collects data on the global history of labour, workers, and labour relations

Child Labour's Global Past

15 November 2006 to 17 November 2006
IISH, Amsterdam


Conveners: Kristoffel Lieten, Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk (, Marcel van der Linden, International Institute of Social History (IISH) / University of Amsterdam. For more information, please contact Angèle Janse (, or Heike Roschanski (


The International Institute of Social History and the Institute for Research on Working Children jointly organised an international conference on 15-17 November on Child Labour's Global Past. The intention was to bring together historians as well as other academics who have been working on the history of child labour in the developed countries and their colleagues who have been working on child labour in Europe's colonial past and in the ex-colonial countries. The aim, apart from eliciting quality papers and stimulating the discussion, was also to learn some lessons from the past. The best way lessons can be learned is by isolating long term developments, not in isolation but in a comparative perspective of the role of child labour all over the world.

The call for papers produced many responses and queries and ultimately a selection of 18 papers was made. The tight programme was intensively attended and produced many instructive discussions.
There were quite a number of papers on the Northern history by authors from Europe and the United States (Hindman, Olsson, Rahikainen, Tuttle, Goulart, Humphries, Kirby, Heesterman, Smits, Heywood, Schrumpf), by European authors writing on the (ex-) colonial countries (Camps, White, Morrison, Alexander, Okia) and, unfortunately, only a few scholars from developing countries writing on their national history of child labour (Kassouf, Alarcon).

The conference succeeded in bringing together a set of excellent papers. They were instructive in many senses, particularly since they were written from the angle of various disciplines. They provided new insights in the extent and meaning of child labour, and child work generally, in Europe. A number of papes also redirected the angle to the perspective from within the world of child labourers.
Specific attention should have been given to the interface between colonialism (and globalization) and on the reliance by the world economy on child labour in the colonial period and thereafter. The question whether and how colonialism, globalization, and the international division of labour affect the occurrence and disappearance of child labour in different parts of the developing world, however, could not be sufficiently answered. This was one of the many topics suggested at the end of the conference for further research. As Hugh Cunningham stated in his concluding lecture: 'We are still facing the challenge of bringing history up to the present'.

A fairly consistent picture emerged of the various factors responsible for the decline of child labour in the developed countries, although it remained difficult to isolate the main cause of that decline. Public outrage, the general rise in living standards, the technological changes and need for a more educated and healthy working class, the nation building impetus, the employers' need for regulated competition and legislation were dealt with as important aspects.
The role of political movements and trade unions was almost overlooked. The role of legislation proper was questioned during the debates since most of the legislation in the then industrialising countries, unlike in present day developing countries, came at a time when a decline had already taken its course. They codified existing practices. Yet, as others argued, legislation was an important marker and set the standard for future developments. It was a beacon for parents and children and for public policy. It had an important normative function. An important aspect which also entered the discussion, and which was dealt with in a number of papers, was the demographic transition. A rapid decline in the number of siblings, beginning in Europe in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and now seemingly taking place in developing countries as well, led to a decreasing number of children available in the labour market.
The decline in the metropolitan countries, the participants were reminded, may have been paralleled by an increase in the colonial countries. Much more research need to be done on the diversified colonial impact: how did Portuguese, Dutch, French, British and Belgian colonial policies impact on child labour and in which sectors was child labour a major part of the labour force. Was this child labour an essential provider of surplus, which went to underwrite industrialisation in the developed countries?

Likewise a discussion took place on the present-day meaning of child labour in the process of global accumulation. If so many children in developing countries work, Cunningham summarized the questions raised, 'is there a separate history or is it within the same structure?' Kristoffel Lieten, in his concluding remarks, memorized how different papers had given evidence of regional and global connections and that this was one of the points to be taken up in future research. Still many gaps do exist in the history of child labour in Europe and the United States but the gap in colonial history and in contemporary Third World research are still bigger. Various questions on the 'children without history', despite the excellent contributions at this conference, remain. The papers and the discussions, he summarized, have actually brought out in clearer perspective what the relevant issues are and why they should be researched and the questions which have been thrown up reflect the high level of the papers and the discussions.

The conference has benefited greatly from the support by the IISH staff and the chairpersons of the different sessions, which included Jan Lucassen, Willem van Schendel and Lex Heerma van Voss. A selection of the papers are intended to be published as a volume and it was generally agreed that the participants should stay in touch through an informal network and that efforts should be made to organise such meetings on a regular footing.