Industrial Homework

Industrial homework refers to production of manufactured goods in private residences. The common arrangement is for factories to contract labor-intensive portions of their production out to networks of ethnically homogeneous families who live in a nearby neighborhood. Historically, industrial homework has been common in textiles, garment and needle work, cigar-making, and hand-made craft goods. Today, industrial homework remains common in all these sectors as well as more modern sectors such as consumer electronics. Similar homework arrangements are common in commercial agriculture involving pre-processing activities like stripping, shelling, and hulling. The employer saves money on space and utilities and assures cost-effective production by paying on a piece-rate. The more the household produces, the more it makes. Contracts between factories and households are often brokered by labor-agents who organize the networks of neighborhood production.

Industrial homework is infamous as a haven for CHILD LABOR. Wedded to preindustrial traditions where all able-bodied members of the household produced for the household's succor, and released from modern factory legislation providing for minimum working conditions, including minimum age requirements, children are an integral part of the industrial home workforce. Once industrial production leaves the factory, monitoring conditions of production becomes difficult. Once it enters the home, any remaining barriers to child labor are overcome.

Industrial homework is closely related to the "putting out" systems that have been associated with the "proto-industrial" phase of the Industrial Revolution. Originally, merchants contracted for production of goods with private households. Later, they organized "manufactories" where production could be organized under one roof, but where production technologies continued to use the traditional hand-craft methods. In colonial New England many of the first schools were "spinning schools" that taught farm girls the industrial arts of spinning and weaving so they could earn cash in the cottage industry network. As work gradually shifted to the factories, industrial homework remained an option for many employers whose product could be easily transported back and forth. It also remained an option to supplement the family income, especially among those who could not get out to work. Homeworkers invariably endured the lowest wages and the most irregular work–long hours during the busy season, no money during the slack season–of all workers in the commodity chain.

As child labor law and reform efforts emerge, the factories are the first to surrender their child workers. But eliminating children from the factories is no assurance that child labor has been eliminated in those industries where homework is prevalent. Often child labor is merely displaced from the factories back into the home production networks. Before RugMark–the global consumer labeling program in hand-woven carpeting, in which the International Labor Organization estimated over half-a-million children under fourteen were engaged–children were brought to the loom-sheds, the primitive "manufactories" of the industry. After RugMark, while consumers could be fairly well assured that labeled rugs were not made by children, many looms moved back to the children, in home-based worksites.

Because of the difficulties in regulating industrial homework, many in America's child labor reform movement concluded that to eliminate child labor from homework, homework itself must be abolished. But homework has never been effectively abolished, so regulation remains necessary. Industrial homework is the first and last refuge of child labor.

See also: Economics and Children in Western Societies; European Industrialization; Work and Poverty.


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