The Child Market in Germany
THAT MUST HAVE BEEN A SAD SIGHT THE OTHER DAY IN Friedrichshafen, Germany, when the century-old child labor market was resumed. Exposed advantageously in a public place, three or four hundred boys and girls were to be seeen – none of them more than fourteen years of age – to be sent out into a seven-months' bondage to the highest bidders.
Intensely humiliating it must have been to these little people to be scrutinised by bull-necked farmers; to be pinched and poked; have their merits or demerits discussed for all the world as if they were a lot of calves or chickens.
The less attractive of the outfit were sold cheap and at bargain prices – probably to the more ignorant, miserly and grasping of the frontier farmers. Once bound over in this temporary servitude, there was no law to protect them. As their masters directed, they could be used for "cattle herding, housework, stable cleaning, nursing children, feeding cattle or running errands." They were to become household and farm drudges, were to be denied all the privileges of childhood or of freedom – were to become the property of their virtual owners, duly paid for, articles and receipted. And for this transaction the parents received sums ranging from $12.50 to $20.
In America we are more refined in matters of this sort. We do not ostentatiously sell our children into slavery. There is no public market as there is for flowers, cattle, or vegetables. We would revolt at the very idea.
Yet, who can see the children trooping home from the factory, carrying their little dinner pails, their faces sad and wan and pinched, without wondering who has sold them to this service? Their puny bodies are converted into human machinery. They are but so many cogs in the remorseless wheel of industry.
They are not learning anything in the department stores and the factories. They are not expected to develop skill. Their little lives are consecrated to dull routine; the endless spinning and grinding and hammering of the modern workshop. They do not enjoy even the open air and the freedom of movement of the children on the Bavarian and Tyrolean farms. Their days and years are regulated by the factory whistle and the time clock.
Slaves to the wheel, they have no opportunity of mastering a trade or handicraft. The conditions under which they work are too often demoralising. Young girls are allowed to mingle promiscuously in the workshops with grown men. They are not paid "living wages," but are informed that their time during the evening is their own. Their minds, being unoccupied during the monotonous working hours, are not improved. The tawdry attractions of the nickel theaters and the penny arcades afford the only relaxation that they know.
Ohio, tardily enough, has passed an efficient child labor law. By virtue of this measure, children under school age can no longer be exploited in the shops and factories. The State must first give them a chance and protect them both from grasping parents and unscrupulous employers.
But there are too few States in which such legislation has been enacted. President Roosevelt in a recent message has made clear the necessity for a Federal child labor law. The District of Columbia, which, being under the direct jurisdiction of Congress, ought to be a model commonwealth, is particularly flagrant in its disregard for the rights of the children. While such conditions exist it ill behooves us to shudder at the Friedrichshafen labor market, for we are conducting similar institutions ourselves, only not so openly.