The Use of Child and Youth Labour in Industrialising Australia: Theoretical and Practical Lessons for Modern Industrialising Labour Markets
Discussions of child labour have traditionally been framed in simple terms. Employers utilise younger workers because they are cheaper. The solution is to pass laws outlawing the practice. Recent international research has cast doubt on these assumptions. Three alternate explanations have been tendered. First, alterations in the birth rate affect the balance in the labour market. Second, it has been suggested that the rise and decline of child labour is best explained in terms of industry's changing labour needs. Finally, the incidence of child labour has been associated with family income choices. The higher the father's wage the less likely it is that children will be sent to work. This study explores the experience of industrialising Australia around 1880-1900. During this time those aged under 20 years comprised half the nation's population. There were few laws restricting the use of children. Nevertheless, the young remained significantly underrepresented in the workforce. It is argued that this can best be explained in terms of industry's labour needs. The economy was built around sectors that demanded high levels of capitalisation and, in consequence, adult labour. The implications for the modern child labour debate are that calls for legal restrictions will have little impact. The incidence of child labour is only likely to fall when capitalisation levels in industry increase.
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