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Child Labor Laws Then and Now

Updated on April 22, 2016

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.

A child pulling a coal tub in Victorian England
A child pulling a coal tub in Victorian England | Source

Child Laborers in an American Coal Mine

Breaker boys, Woodward Coal Mines, Kingston, Pa.
Breaker boys, Woodward Coal Mines, Kingston, Pa. | Source

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

Children working in a mill in Macon, Georgia, US
Children working in a mill in Macon, Georgia, US | Source

Protest Against Child Labor, 1909

Protest against child labor, 1909.
Protest against child labor, 1909. | Source

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.

Young girl weaving in Morocco, 2008
Young girl weaving in Morocco, 2008 | Source

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!


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    • profile image

      chase williams 13 months ago

      2004 I went to nigeria and i seen a lot of child labor

    • profile image

      Dale jent 13 months ago

      child labor is bad \(˚_˚)/

    • profile image

      chase williams 13 months ago

      child labor is bad

    • johnginzburg profile image

      John Ginzburg 4 years ago from Tel aviv and New York

      It is legal for children (even young children) to work in the entertainment industry and in modelling. I find it to be extremely immoral and harmful.

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      There are places in the world (India's bad about it) where people are still held in slavery. There's a charity called Free the Slaves if you're interested in learning more about it. It's pretty eye opening!

    • johnginzburg profile image

      John Ginzburg 4 years ago from Tel aviv and New York

      I must say that the statistics on child labor in developing countries appalled me. The world is not doing enough to put an end to this terrible phenomenon. Countries should boycott products that are originated in countries that allow young children to work.

    • Vivian-tmt-hnp profile image

      Vivian-tmt-hnp 4 years ago from USA.

      2:58pm Thursday 6 June 2013

      Thank for your value article.


    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks for stopping by and voting! It took a long time to secure child labor laws in this country, it may be a while yet before kids around the world are free to go to school instead of work.

    • Mama Kim 8 profile image

      Sasha Kim 5 years ago

      Such an interesting hub, thanks for the history lesson. I hope the rest of the countries in the world can get child labor laws like ours. voting up and interesting!

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii


      Thank you for that link!

    • cprice75 profile image

      cprice75 5 years ago from USA

      Here's a link from the Charlotte Observer that points out multiple calls for ending the restrictions on child labor:

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Wow, really? People have tried to remove child laor laws?

      Thanks for stopping by, Midget38. You're right, child labor is easily forgotten about by people who don't see it every day.

    • cprice75 profile image

      cprice75 5 years ago from USA

      There have actually been a couple of attempts to remove child labor laws in America recently. The most famous was in Missouri, and the person proposing it claimed it was about "freedom." Everyone should watch the History Channel's Men Who Built America. This is the environment the extreme free marketers want to return to, and I find it pretty scary.

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Child labor is terrible, and children are the easiest to manipulate to an employer's advantage too. We should do what we can to protect the kids from being used and abused in this way, and thanks for a start in bringing the issue to light. Thanks for sharing!

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      I remember first finding out about turn of the century child labor in one of the Samantha American Girl books. She had a friend who worked at a thread factory and the book talked about the factory conditions.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      I could barely look at the photo of the children working in the mill. How scary. I remember watching the movie of Johnny Cash and how his brother died while using a saw. He was a child. It was so sad. I hope some day it will be abolished globally. Great write up on this.

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      HoneyBB - that's what my dad always said! When I was in high school and wanted to get a job he said "Why? You'll be working the rest of your life."

      Good luck, pramod gokhale. I hope you find a way to make a difference =)

    • pramodgokhale profile image

      pramodgokhale 5 years ago from Pune( India)


      Cycle continues, you are correct. Without education no decent jobs and higher earning so again no education. It's a vicious circle.

      Your in depth study ignited me and i am studying communities surrounding us and doing unskilled jobs and and continuing to their next generation.

      pramod gokhale

    • HoneyBB profile image

      Helen Laxner 5 years ago from Illinois

      Great hub. The way children were treated and still are in many other countries is so horrible. There are 56,000 and something children working in the U.S. Kids should get to be kids so adulthood lasts long enough; there's no need to start it early.

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks for all the information on Inida, pramodgokhale. Sadly, I'm not really surprised. That's pretty much how child labor laws started here - ignored. It took over 100 years of active effort to bring about real child labor change. It's sad. Without an education and decent jobs, people need their children to work. Then their children can't go to school and the cycle starts all over again. I think some work is good for kids, but blowing up in firework factories...not so good.

      Thanks for stoping by, Billybuc. I appreciate you looking at both of my new hubs on a Saturday evening!

    • pramodgokhale profile image

      pramodgokhale 5 years ago from Pune( India)

      In India we still employ child labors in small scale industries and parents of these children request to employ them for want of income.Though in some Indian states child labor is banned but it is just a formality.

      Some progressive businessmen employ them part-time and paid for their education and welfare also. In most of the industries there is exploitation

      of child labors and no welfare.

      In Tamilnadu southern Indian state at Shivkashi where firecrackers are being produced on mass scale and child labors are working in extreme conditions.Many times there had been explosions and child labors died but governments and so called activists ignored.

      This is the plight India's child labor.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Fascinating the disturbing facts. Excellent job of documenting all of this; some I was aware of; a great deal I was not. Thank you for the education!

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Isn't it funny that delivering papers is specifically allowed by law? I didn't officially have a job until my late teens, but I definitely did a lot of babysitting and helping my parents.

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for this background of child labor laws. Good jo. I was one of those 12 year old paper boys.