Child Labor Laws Then and Now
The History of Child Labor
Child labor has existed throughout human history. For most of this time, child labor was an accepted fact - no one thought it was immoral or wrong, or that 'kids should be kids.' For thousands of years, children worked on family farms plowing fields, sewing seeds, tending animals, and helping with domestic chores. Children were held in indentured servitude and slavery, and served as apprentices, but public opinion did not really turn against the practice until the 19th century.
During the late 1700s and 1800s, child labor became increasingly harsh. As industry spread, many factory and mine owners sought child laborers because they could be paid lower wages, fit between (or inside) the machinery, and were less like to strike than their adult counterparts. Unsafe industrial working conditions caused frequent illness, injury, and even death for these child workers. The new, brutal face of industrialized child labor finally created an outcry and a 100-year battle to restrict child labor in the United States.
Today, child labor still exists in many of the world's nations. While many of these hold jobs that are not exploitative or harmful to their long-term health, far too many children do work harmful, exploitative jobs. Child labor is on the decline, worldwide, but the rate of decline has slowed in recent years and modern child labor is considered one of the 21st century's greatest human rights issues.
Child Laborers in an American Coal Mine
Child Labor in the 19th Century
In industrializing nations like the United States and Great Britain, child labor, and protests against it, grew during the 19th century. This upswing in child labor and protests occurred for three major reasons:
- The number of child laborers increased.
- Children increasingly held dangerous industrial jobs instead of family business or agricultural jobs.
- Modern ideas about childhood began during the 19th century - young people were no longer seen as miniature adults, but as children who should attend school, play, and be sheltered from the 'evils' of the world.
In poor families, children were expected to contribute to the family budget. Their contributions were frequently small - a boy doing the job of an adult man might receive as little as 10% of an adult's wages. During the 19th century, children worked a variety of jobs, but were frequently employed in factories because they were small enough to fit on, in, or between the machines. Evidence indicates that children as young as four sometimes worked in factories! Their small size also made them popular in coal mines because they could fit in tunnels too small for adults. Children who didn't work in factories frequently found employment selling cheap items, such as newspapers and matches.
Because of the demand for domestic servants, particularly in Victorian England, young children might be able to find work as a servant. While it wasn't always as day-to-day dangerous as working in a mine, being a domestic servant came with its own set of difficulties. Servants frequently had to work 80 hour weeks and were in constant danger of being sacked. Employers might actually set traps for their maids to check for honesty and thorough cleaning. For example, someone might hide a coin under a rug. If the maid cleaned the room and left the coin in place, she might get fired for not removing the rug to clean the room thoroughly. If she kept the coin, she would be fired for theft!
Children Working in a Mill
Protest Against Child Labor, 1909
19th Century Protests Against Child Labor
Protests against child labor in the 19th century began the slow process of child labor regulation. The following is not a complete list of every protest, proposal, and passage of a law, but it does highlight the major child labor milestones.
- The first American child labor law was passed in 1836 in Massachusetts. This law stated that all children under the age of 15 who worked in factories had to attend school three months a year.
- In 1842 Massachusetts passed a law limiting children to 10 hour work days. While some other states followed suit, these laws were infrequently enforced.
- In 1876, labor unions began advocating that children under 14 be barred from working.
- In 1883, the first major victory for child labor reform was won when Samuel Gompers and the New York labor movement successfully sponsored a piece of legislation banning cigar making in tenements. Previously, thousands of children had been employed in the cigar-making industry.
The 20th Century and Child Labor
During the 20th century, real progress against child labor was finally made in the United States. After several false starts, failed Constitutional amendments, and laws that were declared unconstitutional, in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act set a federal minimum working age and restrictions on the number of hours children could work.
American Child Labor Laws Today
In the United States today, these are the basic federal child labor laws:
- Generally, children under 12 may not be employed, unless they work for their parents, deliver newspapers, have certain agricultural jobs, or are child actors.
- Children between the ages of 12 and 16 may be employed in safe occupations, as long as they work during approved (non-school) hours and work a limited schedule.
- Children between 16 and 18 may work unlimited hours in non-hazardous occupations.
These laws are designed to ensure children can complete their education and only work in non-threatening, non-exploitative environments. Individual states may have their own, more stringent, child labor laws.
Child Labor in the 21st Century
Exploitative, hazardous child labor is still a realty in many nations today. Child labor is poorly documented, so the exact number of child laborers is hard to determine. UNICEF estimates that about 150 million children between the ages of 4 and 16 work and the International Labor Organization estimates that about 215 million children under the age of 18 work, many of them full time. For children between the ages of 5 and 17:
- 1 in 4 living in sub-Saharan Africa work.
- 1 in 8 living in Asia Pacific work.
- 1 in 10 living in Latin America work.
While child labor rates peaked in the early 20th century, the rate of decline has slowed in recent years. In spite of global reduction in child labor, child labor in sub-Saharan Africa has actually increased in recent years.
Not all child labor is exploitative or dangerous. However, all child labor does have the potential to interfere with a child's education and hamper his/her physical and mental development. Additionally, child labor creates a cycle of poverty. Under-educated child laborers cannot find decent jobs as adults, so their children are forced to work, as well, feeding an intergenerational cycle.
Today, the chief body fighting child labor worldwide is the International Labour Organization through its International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour.
Stopping Modern Child Labor
Child labor is an international problem with far-reaching consequences. A problem of this magnitude cannot be solved by any one nation or corporation, no matter how large or powerful it may be.
If you want to join the fight against child labor, I urge to to visit UNICEF's website or the Global March Against Child Labour to learn about child labor and exploitation and how they lead to poverty. Also, check out the Sweatshop Hall of Fame to learn which major brands and companies use child labor - you may be surprised!