29 October 2014 Last updated at 01:37 GMT
Switzerland’s shame: The children used as cheap farm labour
By Kavita Puri, Switzerland
Thousands of people in Switzerland who were forced into child labour are demanding compensation for their stolen childhoods. Since the 1850s hundreds of thousands of Swiss children were taken from their parents and sent to farms to work – a practice that continued well into the 20th Century.
David Gogniat heard a loud knock on the door. There were two policemen.
“I heard them shouting and realised something was wrong. I looked out and saw that my mother had pushed the policemen down the stairs,” he says.
“She then came back in and slammed the door. The next day three policemen came. One held my mother and the other took me with them.”
At the age of eight, he was in effect kidnapped and taken away to a farm. To this day he has no idea why.
For the first years of his life, he and his older brother and sisters lived alone with their mother. They were poor, but his childhood was happy until one day in 1946, when he came home from school to find his siblings had disappeared.
A year later it was his turn.
He was taken to an old farmhouse and became the farmhand. He would wake before 06:00 and worked before and after school. His day finished after 22:00. This physically imposing man in his 70s looks vulnerable as he remembers the frequent violence from the foster father. “I would almost describe him as a tyrant… I was afraid of him. He had quite a temper and would hit me for the smallest thing,” Gogniat says.
On one occasion, when he was older, he remembers he snapped, grabbed his foster father, pushed him against the wall and was about to hit him. The man threatened him: “If you hit me, I’ll have you sent to an institution.” David backed off.
His siblings were living with families in the nearby village, though he rarely saw them. He missed his mother desperately. They wrote and there were occasional visits. One day his mother made an audacious attempt to get her children back. She came up with an Italian couple in a Fiat Topolino and said she was taking his siblings for a walk. David wasn’t there but it was the talk of the village when he came back that night. The police brought the children back three days later.
“The fact that my mother arranged to kidnap her own children and take them back home to Bern with her just goes to show how much she was struggling against the authorities,” Gogniat says. On his mother’s death he made a shocking discovery. He found papers which showed she had been paying money to the foster families for the upkeep of her four children, who had been forcibly taken away from her and were working as indentured labourers.
Gogniat, his brother and two sisters were “contract children” or Verdingkinder as they are known in Switzerland. The practice of using children as cheap labour on farms and in homes began in the 1850s and it continued into the second half of the 20th Century. Historian Loretta Seglias says children were taken away for “economic reasons most of the time… up until World War Two Switzerland was not a wealthy country, and a lot of the people were poor”. Agriculture was not mechanised and so farms needed child labour.
If a child became orphaned, a parent was unmarried, there was fear of neglect, or you had the misfortune to be poor, the communities would intervene. Authorities tried to find the cheapest way to look after these children, so they took them out of their families and placed them in foster families.
“They wanted to take these children out of the poor family and put them somewhere else where they could learn how to work, as through work they could support themselves as adults,” says Seglias.
Quote: “It was like a kind of punishment. Being poor was not recognised as a social problem, it was individual failure.”
Dealing with the poor in this way she says was social engineering. If a parent dared to object, they could face measures themselves. “They could be put in prison or an institution where you would be made to work, so you could always put pressure on the parents.”
Mostly it was farms that children were sent to, but not always. Sarah (not her real name) had been in institutions from birth, but in 1972, at the age of nine, she was sent to a home in a village, where she was expected to clean the house. She did that before and after school, and at night cleaned offices in nearby villages for her foster mother. She was beaten regularly by the mother, she says, and at the age of 11 started being sexually abused by the sons at night.
This is the first time she has spoken about her story and her hands shake as she remembers. “The worst thing is that one sister, their daughter, once caught one of those boys… while I was asleep and she told the woman… [who said] that it didn’t matter, I was just a slag anyway,” Sarah says. A teacher and the school doctor wrote to the authorities, to express concern about her, but nothing was done.
There was no official decision to end the use of contract children. Seglias says it just naturally started to die out in the 1960s and 70s. As farming became mechanised, the need for child labour vanished. But Switzerland was changing too. Women got the vote in 1971 and attitudes towards poverty and single mothers moved on.
I found an exceptionally late case in a remote part of Switzerland. In 1979, Christian’s mother was struggling. Recently divorced from a violent husband she needed support.
Instead, the state took her seven and eight-year-old sons to a farm many hours away by car. Christian remembers getting out of the car and watching his mother and the woman from social services driving off.
“My brother and I stood in front of the house feeling very lost and didn’t know what to do… it was a strange moment, a moment you never forget,” he says.
On the first day they were given overalls and perfectly fitting rubber boots, “because before the placement the woman from social services had even asked what size shoes we wore… When I think back I do believe there was an awareness that my brother and I would be made to work there.”
There was work before and after school, at weekends and all year round. He remembers one incident, at a silo where cut grass was kept to make into silage. “In winter it was pretty frozen and I had to hack quite hard with the pitchfork and I was put under pressure and then this accident happened and the fork went through my toe.”
Christian says work accidents were never reported to his mother or social services. And if the boys didn’t work hard enough there were repercussions. Food was withheld as a form of punishment.
“My brother and I just went hungry at the time. When I think back there were five years during which we constantly went hungry. That’s why my brother and I used to steal food,” Christian says. He remembers they stole chocolate from the village shop – though he now thinks the owners knew the boys were hungry and let them take the goodies. A former teacher of Christian’s at the local school says with hindsight he looked malnourished.
But there were also more serious consequences if Christian didn’t work hard enough, including violence. “We were pretty much being driven to work,” he says. “There were many beatings, slaps in the face, pulling of hair, tugging of ears – there was also one incident involving something like a mock castration.”
Christian has no doubt why he and his brother were placed with the farmer. “I believe it was about cheap labour… we were profitable,” he says. “They expanded the farm… it was five years of hard work.”
When I visited Christian’s mother, Svetlana, she took out a letter he had written to her during his time with the foster family. Christian himself hadn’t seen it for nearly 30 years.
“It’s a very strange letter. It’s my handwriting but not my words,” he says. It’s a rhyming poem in German, sent to her on Mother’s Day, and it accuses her of failing to look after her children. Svetlana cries as Christian translates it into English. “We are never washed and usually not combed, the socks had holes and the shirt was dirty,” he says.