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International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences Dictionary of American HistoryGale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic HistoryThe Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Further reading


Child Labor

Child Labor


Child labor is work done by persons under age eighteen (or younger, depending on applicable national law) that is harmful to them for being abusive, exploitive, hazardous, or otherwise contrary to their best interests. It is a subset of a larger class of childrens work, some of which may be compatible with childrens best interests (variously expressed as beneficial, benign, or harmless childrens work). Broadly defined, child labor recognizes that childhood is a culturally specific concept and that the particular contexts within which childrens work is assigned and organized tend to determine both its costs and its benefits (Ennew, Myers, and Plateau 2005). While in most cultures some work by children is viewed as healthy for maturation and socialization, child labor is not. It is understood to violate human rights law and policy.

The number of children who are engaged in child labor globally is uncertain. The answer to this question varies according to activity, place, society, and other factors. It is estimated that in 2007 there exist some 250 million child workers worldwide (predominantly in developing countries), with perhaps as many as 75 percent of them working in agriculture and related activities, most of the remainder in the nonagricultural informal sector, and only a small portion in the formal sector. Yet unknown is the exact percentage of these working children who experience child labor specifically.

It nevertheless is widely accepted that large numbers of the worlds working children toil in appalling conditions, are ruthlessly exploited to perform dangerous jobs with little or no pay, and are thus often made to suffer severe physical and emotional abusein brick factories, carpet-weaving centers, fishing platforms, leather tanning shops, mines, and other hazardous places, often as cogs in the global economy; in domestic service, vulnerable to sexual and other indignities that escape public scrutiny and accountability; on the streets as prostitutes, forced to trade in sex against their will; and as soldiers in life-threatening conflict situations. Working long hours, often beaten or otherwise abused, and commonly trafficked from one country to another, their health is severely threatened, their very lives endangered. Many, if they survive, are deformed and disabled before they can mature physically, mentally, or emotionally. Typically, they are unable to obtain the education that can liberate and improve their lives, a condition that is deemed generally to constitute child abuse in and of itself (Bissell 2005; Bissell and Shiefelbein 2003).

The causes of child labor, while steeped in culture, are linked to economicsprimarily poverty, necessitating that children contribute to family income. Likewise, the reduction and eradication of child labor is tied fundamentally to economics. In North America and western Europe, for example, major economically based trends (e.g., industrial development, higher wages, technological innovation, more accessible and prolonged education, lower birth rates, the entry of women into the workforce) best explain, along with state regulation and changing popular ideas about childhood, most of the long-term declines in child labor. Labor movements and other forms of social action also have played an important role, shaping public perceptions and values about children and child rearing.

Because of this variety and complexity, economists and other experts point out that effective policies to combat child labor require flexibility to accommodate the many and diverse factors involved in its reduction and eradication. They especially emphasize the critical importance of presenting poor families and children with economic opportunities and incentives that can free them from having to rely on child labor for survival (Basu 1999; Basu and Tzannatos 2003; Anker 2000, 2001; Grootaert and Patrinos 1999).

Human rights discourse and activismespecially since the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Childhave likewise become influential in combating child labor, advancing the case for at least minimal standards of socioeconomic and political justice to hasten its elimination. Increasingly child labor is understood to be a multidimensional human rights problem in violation of a broad panoply of entitlements with which all members of the human family are endowed (Weston and Teerink 2005a, 2005b). The Convention on the Rights of the Child ensures that children specifically, including working children, are not overlooked in this regard. Thus does Article 3(1) stipulate that in all actions concerning children the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration; and thus, to this end, does Article 32(1) recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the childs education, or to be harmful to the childs health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral, or social development.

While poverty and other economic factors will continue as driving forces behind child labor, a human rights approach to the individual child and societyholistic and multifacetedis indispensable to holding the world community and its member states accountable in eradicating the phenomenon (Weston and Teerink 2005a, 2005b). Recognizing child labor as a human rights problem signals that notions of human dignity are central to all aspects of a working childs life and to the means by which child labor is reduced or eliminated. In this setting, states, multilateral international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and business enterprises are expected to act affirmatively to guarantee that childrens rights are not violated within either the work in which they are engaged or the means by which that work is controlled. In addition, children must be informed of their rights so as to be able to engage their full participation in the realization of their rights. To assert a right of a child to be free from abusive, exploitative, and hazardous work bespeaks duty, not optionaloften capriciousbenevolence.

SEE ALSO Children’s Rights; Human Rights


Anker, Richard. 2000. The Economics of Child Labour: A Framework for Measurement. International Labour Review 139 (3): 257-280.

Anker, Richard. 2001. Child Labour and Its Elimination: Actors and Institutions. In Child Labour: Policy Options, eds. Kristoffel Lieten and Ben White, 85-102. Amsterdam: Askant.

Basu, Kaushik. 1999. International Labor Standards and Child labor. Challenge 42 (5): 82-93.

Basu, Kaushik, and Zafiris Tzannatos. 2003. The Global Child Labor Problem: What Do We Know and What Can We Do? The World Bank Economic Review 17 (2): 147-173.

Bissell, Susan L. 2005. Earning and Learning: Tensions and Compatibility. In Child Labor and Human Rights: Making Children Matter, ed. Burns H. Weston, 377-399. London and Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Bissell, Susan, and Ernesto Shiefelbein. 2003. Education to Combat Abusive Child Labor. Washington, DC: USAID Bureau for Economic Growth, Culture, Agriculture, and Trade.

Ennew, Judith, William E. Myers, and Dominique Pierre Plateau. 2005. Defining Child Labor as if Human Rights Really Matter. In Child Labor and Human Rights: Making Children Matter, ed. Burns H. Weston, 27-54. London and Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Grootaert, Christiaan, and Henry Anthony Patrinos, eds. 1999. The Policy Analysis of Child Labor: A Comparative Study. New York: St. Martins Press.

United Nations. Convention on the Rights of the Child. 1989.

Weston, Burns H., and Mark B. Teerink. 2005a. Rethinking Child Labor: A Multidimensional Problem. In Child Labor and Human Rights: Making Children Matter, ed. Burns H. Weston, 3-25. London and Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Weston, Burns H., and Mark B. Teerink. 2005b. Rethinking Child Labor: A Multifaceted Human Rights Solution. In Child Labor and Human Rights: Making Children Matter, ed. Burns H. Weston, 235-266. London and Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Burns H. Weston

William E. Myers

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Child Labor


CHILD LABOR. Before the twentieth century, child labor was rampant. Knowledge of its extent prior to 1870 is fragmentary because child labor statistics before then are not available, but juvenile employment probably existed in the spinning schools established early in the colonies. As the nineteenth century advanced, child labor became more widespread. The census of 1870 reported the employment of three-quarters of a million children between ten and fifteen years of age. From 1870 to 1910, the number of children reported as gainfully employed continued to increase steadily before the American public took notice of its ill effects.

Early Struggles and Successes

Among the earliest efforts to deal with the problem of child labor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were those of organized labor. For example, the Knights of Labor conducted a campaign for child labor legislation in the 1870s and 1880s that resulted in the enactment of many state laws. The American Federation of Labor consistently spoke out against child labor as a cause of downward pressure on wages and campaigned for the "family wage" that would allow for a man to be the sole breadwinner. Nonetheless, during the nineteenth century, working children, although hired for their docility, took part in strikes and occasionally even led their elders in walkouts. The fledgling industrial unions in the early twentieth century organized the youngest workers, and there was even a union of child workers: the Newsboys and Bootblacks' Protective Union, chartered by the Cleveland AFL. The union's purpose was "to secure a fair compensation for our labor, lessen the hours of labor" and "educate the members in the principles of trade unionism so when they develop into manhood they will at all times struggle for the full product of their labor."

As opposition to child labor grew, the campaign against child labor—although an uphill battle—began to score victories. Conditions in the canning industry, the glass industry, anthracite mining, and other industries began to attract considerable attention at the turn of the century. In the South, a threefold rise in number of child laborers during the decade ending in 1900 aroused public sentiment for child labor laws. In the North, insistence on stronger legislation and better enforcement led to the formation of the National Child Labor Committee in 1904. This committee, chartered by Congress in 1907 to promote the welfare of America's working children, investigated conditions in various states and industries and spearheaded the push for state legislation with conspicuous success. The 1920 census reflected a decline in child labor that continued in the 1930s.

Federal Regulation

The backwardness of certain states and the lack of uniformity of state laws led to demands for federal regulation. Early efforts were unsuccessful. In Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918) and Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Company (1922), the U.S. Supreme Court set aside attempts at congressional regulation. Child labor reformers, nevertheless, began to push for a child labor amendment to the Constitution. In 1924, such an amendment was adopted by Congress and submitted to the states, but by 1950 only twenty-four had ratified it.

The New Deal finally brought significant federal regulation. The Public Contracts Act of 1936 set the minimum age for employment at sixteen for boys and at eighteen for girls in firms supplying goods under federal contract. A year later, the Beet Sugar Act set the minimum age at fourteen for employment in cultivating and harvesting sugar beets and cane. Far more sweeping was the benchmark Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FSLA). For agriculture, it set the minimum working age at fourteen for employment outside of school hours and at sixteen for employment during school hours. For nonagricultural work in interstate commerce, sixteen was the minimum age for employment during school hours, and eighteen for occupations designated hazardous by the secretary of labor. A major amendment to the FSLA in 1948 prohibited children from performing farm work when schools were in session in the district where they resided. There were no other important changes in the FSLA until 1974, when new legislation prohibited work by any child under age twelve on a farm covered by minimum-wage regulations (farms using at least five-hundred days of work in a calendar quarter).

Contemporary Problems

Despite the existence of prohibiting legislation, considerable child labor continues to exist, primarily in agriculture. For the most part, the workers are children of migrant farm workers and the rural poor. Child labor and school-attendance laws are least likely to be enforced on behalf of these children. This lack of enforcement contributes, no doubt, to the fact that the educational attainment of migrant children is still half that of the rest of the population. Beyond agriculture, child labor has emerged, or sometimes reemerged, in a number of areas. Around the turn of the twenty-first century, there have been efforts to relax the minimum-age laws for doing certain kinds of work. The most notable challenge has come from Amish families, who have opened small manufacturing shops in response to the reduced availability of farmland and have sought exemptions on the basis of religious freedom to employ their children in these shops. In addition, the employment of children in sweatshops that produce clothes for major labels has returned to American cities. Also, children and young teenagers selling

candy for purportedly charitable purposes have been overworked and exploited by the companies that hire them in work crews. Children have also remained a part of the "illegal economy," forced into child prostitution and child pornography.

Even work performed by teenagers between fourteen and eighteen—regarded as benign and beneficial long after most work by children under fourteen was abolished—has been reexamined and found problematic. When Teenagers Work: The Psychological and Social Costs of Adolescent Employment (1986), by Ellen Greenberger, has linked teen work to greater teen alcohol use and found that more than twenty hours of work per week can be harmful. The danger of workplace injury is far greater for often-inexperienced teenagers than for older workers, and many common teen work sites such as restaurants become especially dangerous when teenagers are asked to perform tasks (such as operating food processing machines) that are legally prohibited to them. Other workplaces offer unique dangers, for example, convenience stores where holdups at gunpoint occur, and pizza delivery companies whose fast-delivery promises encourage unsafe driving. Finally, the career-building role of teen work may be overestimated, except when linked to internships or vocational education.


Fyfe, Alec. Child Labour. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1989.

Greenberger, Ellen. When Teenagers Work: The Psychological and Social Costs of Adolescent Employment. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

Hamburger, Martin. "Protection from Participation As Deprivation of Rights." New Generation. 53, no. 3 (summer 1971): 1–6.

Hobbs, Sandy, Jim McKechnie, and Michael Lavalette. Child Labor: A World History Companion. Santa Clara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1999.

Taylor, Ronald B. Sweatshops in the Sun: Child Labor on the Farm. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973.

Working America's Children to Death. Washington, D.C.: American Youth Work Center and National Consumers League, 1990.

Zelizer, Viviana A. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. New York: Basic Books, 1985.

Susan RothBreitzer

See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations ; Child Labor Tax Case ; Children's Rights ; Fair Labor Standards Act ; Labor ; Labor Legislation and Administration .

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Child Labor (Issue)


Using children to perform manual labor is probably as old as the human race. European settlers brought this practice to North America, where it was expected that children would help their parents with the family enterprise, which was usually the farm. The modern summer vacation from school hearkens back to such an era. The expectation that children can provide an economic benefit to their families was transferred from farm work to factory labor when the nation began to industrialize. Many parents desperately needed the extra income their offspring could earn, and some would omit their children's names from school lists when education became compulsory. Samuel Slater, a pioneer in the New England textile industry, thought it natural to hire children to work in his cotton mill in 1793, because their small hands could manipulate the machines more easily. This practice aroused no outrage. Slater was remembered as a philanthropist, and President Andrew Jackson (1828-1836) respectfully referred to him as the "father of American manufactures."

As the nation continued to industrialize, many children were forced to work under conditions that were increasingly harsh. Boys would be expected to stand near hot furnaces, molding glass for hours on end, or they would sort coal by hand in the mines, where they might catch black lung disease or other illnesses associated with a dirty, damp, and cold environment. Children in factories were often mangled or killed, as they worked with or near heavy industrial machines. Even in the best of conditions, working children were denied their right to an education.

As the nineteenth century progressed, there was a reaction against this form of child abuse. Workmen's associations often protested child labor because it kept wages low and compromised job security, but there was also a growing appreciation that children should be defended and protected for their own sake. At first the response was rather mild. In 1842 the Massachusetts legislature passed a law that limited children under 12 to working no more than ten hours a day. Many other states passed legislation that restricted child labor, but the laws were often toothless. Certainly they were not uniform and offered industry no definite guidelines on how to curb the practice. The number of children in the workplace continued to expand.

In 1904 a group of reformers established the National Child Labor Committee, whose purpose was to investigate the problem and lobby state-by-state for legislation to end the abuse. It was not effective because each state feared restrictive legislation could give other states a competitive advantage in recruiting industry. In 1907 a federal law against child labor, sponsored by Senator Alan Beveridge of Ohio (1899-1911) went down to defeat. In 1910 there were still an estimated two million children employed in industry.

In 1912 a Children's Bureau was established as an agency of the Department of Commerce and Labor. Its mandate was to examine "all matters pertaining to the welfare of children," which included child labor, and it was led by Julia C. Lathrop, the first woman to head a federal agency. Progress, however, was still slow. In 1916 senators Robert L. Owen and Edward Keating sponsored a bill that restricted child labor, which passed both houses of Congress with the strong support of President Woodrow Wilson. The law was based on a recommendation of the National Child Welfare Committee, but it only prevented the interstate shipment of goods produced in factories by children under 14 and materials processed in mines by children under 16. It also limited their workday to eight hours. In 1918 the Supreme Court declared this law unconstitutional, because it was directed toward the regulation of working conditions, not the control interstate commerce. In 1919 Congress passed the Child Labor Act, which placed a tax on companies that used child labor, but the court too overturned it. In 1924 there was an attempt to amend the Constitution to prohibit child labor, but it never received approval from the required number of states.

In spite of these failures, the national mood was clearly against child labor. As educational requirements became more stringent and truancy laws more strictly enforced, it became harder for companies to depend on child labor. Also demands within industry for a better skilled, more highly trained labor force inhibited the hiring of children. By 1920 child labor was in decline nationally.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's domestic reforms in the 1930s, which are known collectively as the New Deal, also attacked child labor and settled the legality of the issue. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 prohibited the use of boys under 16 and girls under 18 on projects where the U.S. government contributed $10 thousand or more. Another bill, the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was passed in 1938, remains the major piece of federal legislation directed against child labor. It prevented children, including the offspring of migrant workers, from taking jobs that would interfere with their education, health or general well being. It forbade the full-time employment of those 16 and under, and this prohibition could be raised to include those 18 and under for work in dangerous or unhealthy industries. The law also provided for certain exemptions. Children 14 and over could be employed after school hours. Young people were able to work in a family-owned business or at home, or deliver newspapers or act. The Fair Labor Standards Act also established a minimum wage, which further discouraged the employment of children, because low wages was an important inducement for hiring them. A Supreme Court to which Roosevelt had appointed five members upheld the constitutionality of the law in 1941.

Federal legislation is now also supplemented by modern more comprehensive state laws, which also aim to safeguard children by restricting the type of job they may hold and the number of hours they may work. Although there are isolated incidents, child labor in the United States is no longer a major problem, and the remaining domestic issue concerns the morality of importing goods that were produced by child labor abroad.

The international situation regarding child labor is discouraging. In 1973 the United Nations called upon the countries of the world to ratify a convention that established 15 as the minimum age for work. Children as young as 13 would be permitted to do light work, but only those who reached 18 could hold a hazardous job. The reform has not been effective in the developing countries, where poverty forces many children into the workforce to help their families. In 1997, the International Labor Office estimated that 250 million children are working in jobs that may cause physical or emotional damage.

Topic overview

Breaker boys, some as young as nine or ten, worked in the mines, crouched for ten-hour shifts picking slate from coal chutes, breathing clouds of coal dust. All too often boys were pulled into machinery and mangled to death. Others worked underground in mud on fourteen-hour shifts as mule drivers.


Bernstein, Irving. The New Deal, the Worker, and the Great Depression. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Cameron, E.H. Samuel Slater, Father of American Manufactures. Freeport, Maine: Bond Wheelwright Company, 1960.

Semonche, John E. Charting the Future: The Supreme Court Responds to a Changing Society. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.

Tentler, Leslie. Wage-Earning Women: Industrial Work and Family Life in the United States, 1900-1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Wilcox, Claire. Public Policies toward Business. 3d ed. Homewood, Ill.: Richard D. Irwin, 1966.

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child labor

child labor, use of the young as workers in factories, farms, and mines. Child labor was first recognized as a social problem with the introduction of the factory system in late 18th-century Great Britain. Children had formerly been apprenticed (see apprenticeship) or had worked in the family, but in the factory their employment soon constituted virtual slavery, especially among British orphans. This was mitigated by acts of Parliament in 1802 and later.

Similar legislation followed on the European Continent as countries became industrialized. Although most European nations had child labor laws by 1940, the material requirements necessary during World War II brought many children back into the labor market. Legislation concerning child labor in other than industrial pursuits, e.g., in agriculture, has lagged.

In the Eastern and Midwestern United States, child labor became a recognized problem after the Civil War, and in the South after 1910. Congressional child labor laws were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1918 and 1922. A constitutional amendment was passed in Congress in 1924 but was not approved by enough states. The First Labor Standards Act of 1938 set a minimum age limit of 18 for occupations designated hazardous, 16 for employment during school hours for companies engaged in interstate commerce, and 14 for employment outside school hours in nonmanufacturing companies. In 1941 The Supreme Court ruled that Congress had the constitutional authority to pass this act.

Nearly all member nations of the International Labor Organization (ILO) regulate the employment of children in industry, and most also regulate commercial work; some nations regulate work in the street trades, while a few control agricultural and household work. Despite such regulation attempts, as many as 26% of all children between the ages of 5 and 14 (an estimated 246 million children) were engaged in economic activity in 2005, with the highest percentage in developing nations in sub-Saharan Africa. Not all such work is considered child labor, but some 186 million children were estimated to be involved in child labor as defined under international agreements. The 1973 ILO Minimum Age Convention, banning any form of child labor, has been ratified by 117 nations. In 1999, ILO members unanimously approved a treaty banning any form of child labor that endangers the safety, health, or morals of children, but the treaty covered such universally objectionable forms of work as slavery, forced labor, child prostitution, criminal activity, and forced military recruitment and could be seen as a step backward from the 1973 treaty. The treaty was also criticized for permitting voluntary enlistment in the military by persons under the age of 18.

See W. Trattner, Crusade for the Children (1970); also annual reports of the National Child Labor Committee.

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