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The Swiss Verdingkinder: A Forgotten History Of Government Sanctioned Abuse

Verdingkinder, the German for "forced child labors", also known as contract children, were children taken as wards of the state and relocated to Swiss farms as laborers. The state justified their taking of the children through any number of means, some of which include poverty, familial dysfunction, the child being born out of wedlock, or the child belonging to a gypsy family. This moral reasoning failed the Swiss government, based on most accounts, as the verdingkinder were subjected to physical, psychological, and emotional abuse on many an occasion. Now, a referendum in Switzerland has received the requisite 100,000 signatures necessary for the Swiss government to be required to address the call for monetary recompense for roughly 10,000 still-living verdingkinder.

The program began in the mid-19th century, during the industrial revolution. At this time, urban labor was overflowing, while cheap farming labor was unavailable. Moreover, Switzerland was a very poor country up until WWII, and did not have any mechanized farm system. To reconcile this, Switzerland enacted the policy with the hopes that the children would be put to work and still be provided with a home. The policy had child welfare in mind (so much as child welfare existed at this time), but the moral failings would come as a result, not of the urban poor families these children were born into, but the farming families these children were forced to live with.

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The verdingkinder system continued until the mid-20th century, when it eventually died out. The policy had never been officially revoked, it simply was replaced as advancements in mechanized farming practices rendered the need for child laborers obsolete. According to the BBC, the latest case of forced child labor was in 1979 when the Swiss government intervened in a woman's life after her divorce, taking away her two children and sending them to live on a farm. In April of last year, the Swiss government released an official apology for the program.

Below you will find a clip from the 2012 film, Der Verdingbub (The Foster Boy), a movie which covers the fictional tale of one of these children. I would very much recommend anyone watch this movie if they are interested in seeing the turmoil these children went through at the hand of this Swiss policy. From the description:

Set in the 1950s this deeply moving drama follows 12-year-old Max, an orphaned Verdingbub (discarded child) who suffers abuse at the hands of his host family while authorities turn a blind eye. With only his passion for playing the accordion and friendship with 15-year-old girl laborer Berteli to sustain him, Max's ordeal is one you won't soon forget.

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