Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Child Labour in Cotton: Then and Now


1911 Census Page: Everyone worked 60 hours at the Dominion Textile Plant in 1911 in Magog. Even Occasional Jobbers. That's because the Quebec Factor Act said no factory employee could work more than 60 hours...Someone fixed up the salaries too.

Well, as I write Flora in the City, about Flora Nicholson in 1911/12 where she gets a chance to learn about the human cost of her clothing, but really does nothing about it, just like most of us, I have decided to give Miss Gouin, the milliner's apprentice ,another scene.

Flora will see her in Richmond, possibly sitting on bench in front of the Post Office. She will be reading a book. An English Book. The Handbook for Department Stores: Linen and Cotton Department. This will be to show how smart and ambitious she is. She will tell Flora she wants to go work for Dupuis Freres, in Montreal, or even one the big American Department Stores, where they sometimes like a girl with a French accent (she will say) as long as the girl says she is from Paris. That's where Flora will hear that Milliners can make as much as 1,000 a year.

I'll have Miss Gouin turn the tables on Flora and ask for help reading a portion.. How can Flora decline? A relevant bit.. which one? The book thoroughly describes all the kinds of cotton. Maybe I'll just have her read it out, and ask Flora if the pronounciation is good.

I found a paper online about child labour in the cotton industry, TODAY. I am reading it carefully, of course, so that I am able to make my 1910 story relevant. I have to find some points that overlap. I am sure there are many.

The paper is by Alejandro Plastina and is called Child Labour in the Cotton Sectors and was written for the International Cotton Advisory Board in Washington DC.

According to the introduction, there are 300 million children, aged 5-17 working worldwide. Of those 200 million are child labourers.

Here's a quote from the paper defining child labour. "Schematically, child labor includes all types of work conducted by children 5-11 years old, non-hazardous work conducted by children 12-14 years for more than 14 hours but less than 43 hours per week, and all worst forms of child labor conducted by children 5-17 years (including hazardous work in specified industries and occupations and work for more than 43 hours per week in other industries and occupations). In essence, child labor is work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity and is considered a violation of fundamental human rights (ILO 2008b)."

I'll have someone in Flora in the City use the same rationale for child labour, that it's the parents' fault. That it is better for the kids to work than to starve... or be forced into worse kinds of work or sexual slavery, which is a big concern in 1911, and called the "the social evil". Even people who could care less about the well-being of children were interested in eradicating prostitution.

And as for the older women workers, during my scene at the Montreal Council of Women, where Lady Drummond discusses the Eaton's strikes, someone will yell out "It is lucky they are getting paid for what most women do for free."

Mrs. Drummond won't agree, but that line is an important one.