United States, World

Is Slavery Back?

Rooftops and smokestacks of factories.
(PBS LearningMedia)

Imagine a world where you are a ten years old in eighteen fifty nine. You have no family because they were all killed in a railroad accident. There is no one to feed you and take care of you. The only way to live is by having a job. Your job is working in a coal mine, where you push wagons full of coal for ten hours a day, with a lunch and dinner break. You are not provided with an education. The job provides you with a small room, two pairs of clothes, small meals, and no money. Doesn’t this sound like slavery? This is how many orphaned children lived during the Industrial Revolution. As a people we focus rightly so on the dehumanizing conditions of slavery, but often overlook the dehumanizing conditions of factory workers. The Industrial Revolution was the new slavery of the 19th century due to poor working conditions, child labor, and terrible living conditions.   

The Industrial Revolution began in early eighteenth century Europe. Due to the great success that it brought in Europe, industrialization soon spread around the world. In America, the Industrial Revolution took place during the nineteenth century. The Industrial Revolution was when hand and home production changed to machine and factory production. Many remarkable innovations and technological advancements came from this period including motion pictures, telephones, light bulbs, x-ray machines, movie cameras, and refrigerators. The advancements in transportation, such as the train and the automobile, cut down the amount of weeks it took to transport goods. Also, the advancements in communication shortened the time of sending information. The great author Mark Twain called this era the “Gilded Age”. He said the era was like a gilded frame of a painting. Where it is golden on the outside, but as you looked closer you saw it was rotting on the inside. From an outsider’s perspective, the Gilded Age created massive wealth and great new innovations, but the deeper they looked the more they noticed that the wealth was built on the backs of mistreated workers, environmental degradation, and ruthless business tactics. The production of goods increased exponentially and the nations experienced economic growth. All of this came with a price.

Coal miners working.

During the Industrial Revolution the working conditions were no better than during slavery. Many historians see the Industrial Revolution as the rebirth of slavery. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French writer, wrote this about his visit to Manchester in 1835, “From this foul Drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilize the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish, here civilization works its miracles and civilized man is turned almost into a savage.” (Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 44). Like slaves, industrial workers worked fourteen to sixteen hours a day for six days a week. The majority of the workers earned twenty  to forty percent less than the minimum deemed necessary for a decent life. They earned around ten cents an hour. At least slaves did not have expenses to pay. Most owners were only concerned in making a profit with low labor costs. Like slavery the cotton fields were not the greatest environment to work. The only light present in the factories was sunlight. The machines produced many damages gasses and chemicals that decreased the lifespan of the average worker. In some factories, workers would be covered in black smoke by the end of their shifts. There was a plethora of machines with not many safety precautions. This work environment resulted in many deaths.

Children working in a textiles factory.

During the Industrial Revolution, poor children often worked full time to support themselves and their families. In eighteen thirty Richard Oastler, a committed abolitionist, referred to the treatment of children in Yorkshire factories as “Yorkshire Slavery”. Children, like slaves started to work long hours around the age of four. Most children, like slaves, were not paid, but worked for a room and meals. When they were payed, they earned ten to twenty percent of what an adult would earn for the same job. Children worked on machines in factories, sold newspapers on street corners, broke up coal at the coal mines, and as chimney sweeps. Sometimes children were preferred to adults because of their ability to easily fit between machines and into small spaces. Many children had health problems. Doctor Turner Thackrah described the children leaving the Manchester cotton mills as “almost universally ill-looking, small, sickly, barefoot and ill-clad. Many appeared to be no older than seven. The men, generally from sixteen to twenty-four, and none aged, were almost as pallid and thin as the children” (Thompson 329). Some businesses treated children no better than slaves. The children were locked up and forced to work long hours. Many children had physical deformities and little to no education.

During the Industrial Revolution the living conditions for most were not any better than slavery. As business began

A group of wokers living in the same apartment.

to expand and the economy of the country grew, more individual moved to the cities for better economic opportunities. The population of cities increased rapidly. Cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia at least doubled in size. This caused factory worker to live in slums, where apartments were crowded and had unhealthy conditions. Around five to nine people would live in a single apartment, which is around the size of a studio apartment in today’s standards. Since there was not enough room diseases spread easily. Some of the diseases were smallpox, typhus, typhoid, dysentery, diphtheria, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, and cholera.  The unsanitary conditions, lack of medicine, and medical care resulted in many deaths.

The Industrial Revolution was the new slavery of the 19th century. The poor working conditions and child labor of the Industrial Revolution were the cause of all demands for labor condition advancements in which it set the path for slavery free America. Nonetheless, child labor and labor in general in different parts of the world remain under similar conditions in many developing countries such as China, Korea, and Taiwan in which large companies like LG, Samsung, and Apple products are produced. That is why we should pay attention to the products we purchase lest they be funding these archaic working conditions. Furthermore, the world should come together to enact laws and regulations that protect labor forces worldwide from such exploitation.

Article by Anthony Verandes and Paul Hissen

Works Cited:

Nelson, Ken. ” Industrial Revolution: Child Labor .” Ducksters. Technological Solutions, Inc. (TSI), Nov. 2017. Web. 1 Nov. 2017. <


The Industrial Revolution.” Untitled Document, BCP, webs.bcp.org/sites/vcleary/modernworldhistorytextbook/industrialrevolution/WorksCited.html.

History.com Staff. “Industrial Revolution.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009, www.history.com/topics/industrial-revolution.

Poddar, Ankur. “Working and Living Conditions.” The Industrial Revolution, firstindustrialrevolution.weebly.com/working-and-living-conditions.html.

Wantye, Cheyenne, et al. “Unsanitary Living Conditions during the Industrial Revolution by cheyenne_wantye – Infogram.” Create Infographics, Charts and

    Maps – Infogram, Infogram, infogram.com/unsanitary-living-conditions-during-the-industrial-revolution-1gg4qpzx06e821y.

One Comment

  1. I agree with the notion that we should pay more attention to the products we purchase and the laws that govern areas with inhumane working conditions. However, we should also focus on why people do these jobs in the first place. They have no better opportunities to make a living and support themselves. Therefore, instead of solely focusing on the the issue of harsh treatment, we should also take into account why these people are being subjected to slave-like conditions in the first place. This is similar to when women were first allowed to work in factories like the Lowell mills. They provided the best opportunities for them to sustain a better lifestyle, even though the working conditions were terrible.