I grew up in the village of Kings Langley, 20 miles north-west of London. Nowadays it is a commuter suburb of London. My father was a shy man and was devoted to his garden, and we were lucky to have a relatively large garden where he grew vegetables and soft fruit. We also had four apple trees. Growing and harvesting was followed by the all-family task of preservation, salting of green beans and jam making. Mowing the lawn was my responsibility. This was in the 1950s when I was under 10 years old and so was not protected by the ILO Minimum Age Convention 138 (1973).
My parents believed that my pocket money would provide a basic income floor and I then earned top-ups by doing productive work. I was paid one penny for mowing the lawn and took great pride in making sure that the alternate darker and lighter green stripes caused by the mower roller were clearly visible. This work was not hazardous as it was a push mower.
Soon my neighbours, who were retired, asked me to cut their lawns which I was pleased to do. One of these neighbours had a petrol-driven mower which made the work easier and improved my status and skills, presumably. When I left primary school and joined secondary school at age 11 (7th grade) I took on a Saturday job in a garden a mile away that I had seen advertised in the local newsagent. For the day’s work I was paid £1. This involved all manner of garden tasks, tidying, cutting lawns, digging and so on.
At age 16 I was old enough to become a summer vacation farm worker, and I worked on the early grain harvest at Barnes Farm, Kings Langley, earning £5.10 for a 6-day work week. I would also do other jobs if the weather delayed the harvest such as cleaning out chicken houses and tidying the farmyard. This was the time when I realised that farm labouring was extremely hard work and that my dream of owning a farm would never come to fruition. I still went on to do a BSc in Agricultural Science and Economics but switched to development economics in graduate school.
When I first worked for ILO’s International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) in 2004, I am convinced they used a four-part scale of child work and child labour with grades 1 and 2 not being harmful (and perhaps beneficial), while grades 3 and 4 were hazardous and outright life-threatening. When I recently asked IPEC staff about this they insist that such a scale did not exist. In any case, what I did was in grade 2, beneficial, as it allowed me to emulate my father and work in the self-reflective peace of a garden, and provide some extra income (which I believed I saved up and spent on our summer holidays at the seaside!).
This mini-essay is part of the ‘childhood experiences of work’ series. As we prepared to launch ACHA we asked partners to reflect on their own childhood experiences of work. The prompt was simple and open: approach it in however you like; write as little or as much as you like, in whatever form you like; try to put yourself back into your frame of mind as a child; use 18 years old as a rough cut-off age, and think about harm.
Eighteen reflections were received from ten women and eight men aged from 29 to 70 years, who grew up in the UK (7), Ghana (3), Netherlands (2), Canada (2), Argentina (1), Brazil (1), Denmark (1) and US (1).
If you would like to share your childhood experiences of work please send a short narrative (under 1,000 words) to ACHA (ACHA-Enquiries@ids.ac.uk). All narratives that are published on the ACHA website will be anonymised.
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