Forced Child Labor and the Art of Living

Maja Nikolova

The issue of child labor in Serbia, in addition to legislative acts, is determined by the child's status in society, which is best seen in the field of history of schooling and education. Namely, during the 19th century until the beginning of the First World War in Serbia, child labor was not legally regulated. Since families, especially in the villages, lived in a community, children's participation in domestic affairs was inevitable. Along with adults, children learned and matured, acquired basic practical knowledge, and became equal members of society by fitting into everyday life. Although children often did demanding physical work, the emotional relationship between children and adults was based on respect, obedience, and trust. On the other hand, during the second half of the 19th century, when crafts in Serbia began to develop intensively, apprentices appeared in society. These were boys, mostly from low-income families, with or without completed primary school and about ten years old, who learned a specific craft from a master. The master provided them an apartment, food, and clothes, and in return, they had to do everything, even the most difficult, household chores. The apprentices usually stayed with the master for three or four years, during which time they mastered the craft and became journeymen. In practice, however, it was not easy to be an apprentice. During the first year, the apprentices brought water to the journeymen, cleaned their shoes, were ridiculed and humiliated, while the master demanded absolute obedience from them. It was often heard that the apprentices were hungry, poorly trained, ill, and physically abused. As these were mostly children from poor backgrounds, they did not support their families. The exploitation of child labor accompanied physical and psychological abuse. This situation lasted until the end of the 19th century when the first craft school in Belgrade was opened at the House of the Society for Helping and Educating Abandoned Children. Although the Law on Craft Schools has been in force since 1892, one gets the impression that society continued to exploit children's free labor because children without parental care were forced to decide to study a trade that would enable them to live independently the fastest. After the First World War and in the second half of the 20th century, more attention was paid to children's social status, so the exploitation of child labor was reduced. Even in this period, although there were craft boarding schools, the memories of some apprentices who still did the most challenging jobs and lived in terrible conditions were noted. This paper aims to point out the genesis of child forced labor, its connection with social events, and its causal relations related to the development of education and culture. By analyzing archival material, mostly recorded memories, and reading relevant published sources, using the historical method, we will shed light on another segment of the permanent development of social protection of children as well as schooling and education among Serbs.