The Triumph and Tragedy on how the Industrial Revolution Sparked a Strong Labor Movement

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Updated: May 22, 2021
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The Industrial Revolution was a period that transformed Europe and North America in almost every way. People who lived through the period, which occurred between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, experienced what is believed to be the largest mass migration in human history. Entire families packed up and move from rural homesteads and villages and headed for cities where waged jobs awaited them. While the Industrial Revolution provided people with wages and cheap goods, it also came with tragedy. As people arrived in cities, they found that both labor and living conditions in industrializing cities were poor. Workers, including children, worked grueling hours in dangerous conditions only to return home to poverty and poor living conditions. However, something good would come of their suffering: as historians and humanitarians intervened, the British government developed legislation to protect workers, including and especially children. Although child labor and other hazardous working conditions still exist today, particularly in Asia, the case of the Industrial Revolution in Britain shows that there are remedies in place to help fix them so that children may enjoy a childhood and an education and people can have dignity at work.

Why Was the Industrial Revolution so Important?

The Industrial Revolution had a large number of effects that transformed modern society both in Europe and around the world. For brevity, the discussion of these social effects will be limited largely to Great Britain, where the Industrial Revolution began in earnest in the late eighteenth century. The social effects include changes in labor practices, standards of living, food and nutrition, housing, sanitation, water supply, and the general social structure.

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Standards of living changed dramatically during the Industrial Revolution. However, there is still debate regarding whether standards as a whole improved or declined. While real wages may have improved, some say that industrialization only improved most for the upper class while the working class suffered because it looted surplus value. Others say it improved life for the middle class by adding value and making consumer goods more widely available to the middle classes. Some argue that improvements were made as early as the 1810s, but others say nothing was seen until the 1840s and 1850s.

Regardless of what side of the issue present-day economists land on, all can agree that the period was marked by a sweeping economic and social change. Britain transformed from a rural, agrarian society to one that moved by the masses to urban centers where waged labor was available. In cities, the need for housing grew and the tenement system of living began to dominate the streets of Britain’s urban industrial centers. People would live packed into single rooms, sometimes marked by lines on the floor, with thousands of people living in a single row of terraced houses. Tenements had outward facing windows, but those living in interior rooms had no access to windows or ventilation. Additionally, running water was unavailable, and tenants shared communal toilets. Those who wanted to bathe could do so in communal bathing areas. As a result, unsanitary living conditions abounded. Waste management was also not yet a focus. Solid waste was found in piles near to living quarters, and human waste generally contaminated the drinking water supply.

Labor conditions also impacted public health and quality of life on a massive scale. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, work was largely performed at home on farms rather than in factories. The agrarian life was a hard one and full of strife; crop failure was a regular occurrence in places like the Scottish Highlands and the island of Ireland. Thanks to mechanization and the concentration of industrial operations in the cities, whole families moved to the families in droves. Men, women, and children all worked for low wages, but women and children earned only half or even one-sixth of what men earned. Working conditions were as poor as wages; long, demanding hours were made worse by cruel systems of discipline. Factory workers saw their wages docked for infractions like using the toilet without permission or chatting with their neighbor. Many also lived in factory-owned housing where they faced the double-bind of low wages and high rents in addition to poor, crowded living conditions. Child laborers had particularly dangerous jobs; they worked long hours with their parents, made the least, and their size made them prone to being handed the most dangerous jobs like crawling into machinery. Children were also subject to the most grotesque punishments; factory overseers might even go as far as to nail their ears to the table as a punishment for being bold.

The horrible labor conditions were not to last forever. Poor treatment and growing public awareness of exploitation led to the growth of the labor movement. New labor unions would fight for limits on hours, safety at the workplace, and an increase in wages. It offered the greatest impact on child labor by limiting the number of hours a child could work during the day and improving wages and safety.

The Factory Act of 1802 was the first of the formal legislative fixes for working conditions. However, it was limited to English cotton mills and several other facilities. Later acts including the Factory Act of 1819, Factory Act of 1833, and Ten Hours Act of 1847 all went further to improve conditions for workers across Britain. Although these acts contributed improvements, it is not to say that life became easier. Minimum wage, the eight-hour working day, and more protective child labor laws were still far away.

The Impact of the Change of Labor Conditions on Modern Society

Incremental labor laws changed the landscape of work for the working class during the Industrial Revolution and in the years after. The workers who would experience one of the greatest changes were child workers. Although England had previously passed acts that changed work, the first important act in the industrial era was the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act of 1802, which is also known as the Factory Act 1802. The act explicitly targeted one group of people: children working as apprentices in cotton mills. The act was introduced by Sir Robert Peel after he blamed a 1784 outbreak of malignant fever at his own cotton mills on “gross mismanagement.” Among other things, the act guaranteed that the apprentices be provided with a basic education and given the freedom to attend religious services at least once a month. The law also forced cotton mill owners to limit apprentice working outs to 12 hours a day (not counting meal breaks), with no hours worked at night. Clothing was also to be provided by the owner.

Observers at the time saw child labor, in particular, as a crime of capitalism. Two historians in particular have promoted this issue in their work. J.L. and Barbara Hammond divided child factory workers into two groups: “free labor children” and “parish apprentice children.” Free labor children were those who lived at home with their nuclear families or guardians, but their families insisted they work in factories during the day. The issue of child labor at the time was complicated. Today, it sounds entirely exploitative. However, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises noted that the terrible conditions children were forced to endure existed for hundreds of years before the Industrial Revolution, and the growth of factory work opened up new opportunities. He wrote:

“It is a distortion of facts to say that the factories carried off the housewives from the nurseries and the kitchen and the children from their play. These women had nothing to cook with and to feed their children. These children were destitute and starving. Their only refuge was the factor. It saved them, in the strict sense of the term, from death by starvation.”

When people spoke of the “evils of capitalism” during this period, they most commonly referred to the parish apprentice children, who were the subjects of the Factory Act of 1802. Parish apprentice children were not encouraged by their destitute parents to work. Instead, they did not have a physical choice because they were forced by government officials in their parish. Most of these children were orphans and some came from households where their parents were either negligent or could not care for them. As Robert Hessen wrote, the children under custodial custody of their parish “were sent into virtual slavery by a government body; they were deserted or orphaned pauper children who were legally under the custody of the poor-law officials in the parish, and who were bound by these officials into long terms of unpaid apprenticeship in return for bare subsistence.”

Although the Act was an important step, it was not enforced throughout the country. Additionally, the free children were not addressed within the law, and free children quickly outnumbered apprentices in factories across Britain. It was not until 1819 that working hours for free children were limited and a minimum working age was set for the masses of children working in cotton mills. Unfortunately, neither the 1802 nor 1819 acts featured a way of enforcing the law. However, it did serve as a stepping stone for the Factory Acts that would come throughout the rest of the nineteenth century and eventually provide real regulation and protection for children.

Labor law and child labor are not issues that were left behind in the nineteenth and twentieth century. It has also been possible to see the evolution of labor laws play out within our lifetime. Today, Asian economies represent the fastest industrializing region in the global economy. Working conditions vary according to country, but many featured unsafe or unregulated labor practices as well as poorly paid labor. Apparel manufacturing, which is largely driven by Western corporations, is considered to be a key example of unsafe labor practices in Asia and labor protections here are poor not only compared to European standards but also in the developing world generally.

Global actors also consider Asia’s child labor record as unacceptable because it does not differ greatly from nineteenth century Europe. In Asia, 122 million children between 5 and 14 years old work rather than attend school full time. The International Labor Organization lobbies for child labor laws to take children out of factories and mandate a minimum amount of schooling so they might receive and education and improve their prospects as they reach adulthood. However, as in industrial Britain, these practices only survive in the shadows.

Today, “child labor” is defined as work that stops children from experiencing their childhood, meeting their full potential (usually by depriving them of education), and enjoying basic dignity. The word described is also harmful to both their physical and mental development. Child labor is also work that is “mentally, physically, socially, or morally dangerous, and harmful to children.” Just as recognition of labor issues in nineteenth century Britain sparked a labor movement, so too has the identification of these issues in Asia also created a significant push for reform. As increased attention from global watchdogs, human rights organizations, and popular media have highlighted injustices and put political pressure on Asian governments and economic pressure on Western multinational companies to end exploitative labor practices. Large companies like Nike, Puma, and Asics have all come under fire for their use of labor as recently as 2017.

In addition to these forces, international organizations have attempted to help keep children out of labor. There are three international conventions related to child labor: Minimum Age to Employment Convention, 1973, Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999, and UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989. The ILO runs the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), which attempts to remove children from hazardous workplaces in Asia and around the globe. The United States Department of Labor (U.S. DoL) also supports initiatives designed to reduce the number of children working in dangerous conditions and ultimately eliminating child labor. The 2017 report found that meaningful efforts had been made in strengthening legal frameworks to prohibit placing children in hazardous work, using technology to enforce child labor laws, and launching new policies to eliminate child labor in Asia.

Some difficulties have remained. The U.S. DoL found that there were not enough inspectors or resources to fully enforce child labor laws; nineteenth century child protection laws suffered the same problem as they were virtually unenforceable and therefore did little to help the children working in cotton mills. In fact, Edmonds and Srestha (2012) found that the implementation of a child labor policy in 1986 resulted in increased child labor practices, which some predictions suggested might be the case. Indeed, because child labor is often the result of poverty, as it was in the nineteenth century, attempts to implement a minimum age are often ineffective and attempts to ban child labor from the formal economy only result in driving labor into informal economies, which occurred in India in the 1990s. Additionally, there is a lack of social programs for children who are engaged in specific types of labor, including commercial sexual exploitation and hazardous work. Finally, some governments reportedly committed acts that made children more vulnerable to labor or committed acts of violence against child laborers.

UNICEF recommends that instead of focusing on policy, ending child labor would be better served by a system level approach. Rather than focusing on specific issues, it attempts to create a system that creates an environment “where girls and boys are free from violence, exploitation and unnecessary separation from family, and where laws, services, behaviors, and practices minimize the vulnerability, address known risk factors, and strengthen the resilience of children.” The organization says an effective system includes several parts: legal and policy framework, regulation and oversight, collaboration and coordination, knowledge and data, services and service delivery mechanisms, and human and financial resources. By tackling the whole system, UNICEF believes it can help vulnerable children escape child labor and the circumstances surrounding it and live a dignified childhood so that they might reach their full potential.


The Industrial Revolution changed the landscape of Europe and North America by sending people from rural, agricultural backgrounds into formal, urban economies. Although it was a triumph for engineering and industry, it also resulted in dangerous and deplorable working conditions, especially for children. A combination of laws eventually saved children from factory work, but the laws required commitment and enforcement by the government and society. In Asia, the economy is also rapidly industrializing, and millions of children participate in child labor that takes them out of schools and into dangerous work. Like in Britain, laws alone have not stopped children from participating in this work. Instead, children will prevail only when an integrated system is in place to prevent the conditions that send them to work and to make it clear to factory owners that a child’s place is in the classroom, not in the factory. Triumph has not yet made it to Asia, but as the case of Britain shows, it is possible to see a better future.”

The Triumph and Tragedy on how the Industrial Revolution Sparked a Strong Labor Movement essay

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The Triumph and Tragedy on How the Industrial Revolution Sparked a Strong Labor Movement. (2021, May 22). Retrieved from