Child Labour Opponents and their Campaigns in Global Perspective, 1888-1938

Funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), 2020-2023

The project’s main objective is to investigate and compare a diverse sample of locally grounded yet nationally and/or often globally entangled child labour opponents, their motivations, and campaigns between 1888 and 1938, when anti child-labour activism was at its peak. While contemporary child labour has received scholarly attention, we lack comprehensive histories of child labour that extend beyond the nation framework and include the “Global South”. Only recently have a few studies contrasted regional and historical contexts or investigated transnational entanglements. In particular, knowledge on the global child labour abolition movement is scarce. Drawing on material gathered from 13 archives worldwide and focusing on Brazil and the United States as globally contextualised yet distinctive case studies, this project asks: Who were the protagonists, and how and why did they oppose child labour in different regions and moments in time? How does anti-child labour activism compare between regions and to what extent was it globally entangled? How did protagonists impact (or were impacted by) international conferences and organisations (e.g. the IACP and ILO), and the globalising anti-child labour discourses and practices they developed? The project aims to address three research gaps: 1) anti-child labour activism in historical context rather than the present; 2) opponents from the “South” rather than just the “West”; and 3) the understudied diverse opponents (from elite philanthropists to the labour movement, from civil society to transnational organisations), their motivations and campaigns (including the role of media and transnational organisations as exchange platforms). Innovatively combining the method of qualitative comparison and entangled history with a biographical and media-focused approach, the project’s main outcome (monograph) will be a first history of early twentieth century anti-child labour activism in the Americas in global perspective narrated through the biographies of 10 diverse localised, yet nationally and globally entangled, protagonists from Rio/São Paulo and New York City. Like a camera, it zooms out from their biographies (private) and local context (city) to the national and global level (child labour abolition as a global movement), making the project workable. Rather than merely accumulating knowledge about two national cases, these exemplar activists are set in a broader context. While the project will advance the history of child labour opposition regionally (in global rather than “Western” terms) and thematically (opponents, motivations, campaigns), it also constructively engages with criticism levelled against global history approaches (including the subfields of labour and social movements) that it risks silencing local or social specificities (diversity). Focusing on global child labour opponents, this project will contribute to a broader history of global child labour abolition.

DFG project site