(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)

Child Labor

Child Labor, work performed by children that either endangers their health or safety, interferes with or prevents their education, or keeps them from play and other activity important to their development. Child labor of this character has long been considered a social evil to be abolished.

Child labor as a social problem is associated with the rise of industrial production and the appearance of capitalism. This is not to imply that children did not work in earlier ages. Children on the medieval manor helped in agriculture almost as soon as they could toddle; illustrated manuscripts show children working beside their parents in the field, and contracts between lord and serf specifically mentioned the obligation of children to work.

In the ancient world the vast majority of the population labored in field or city workplace, and children joined in as soon as they were able. The same is true of nonindustrial societies today, although they make less of a distinction between "work" and "play" than highly developed societies do. Indeed, in cultures with low economic productivity, child labor of some sort was and is clearly inescapable. In such societies, however, the child was not physically separated from the care of the family or from the occupation of his or her parents. Children received some protection, and their labor was also a form of vocational training for the economic role they would assume as adults.

Early History of Child Labor

Industrial child labor first appeared with the development of the domestic system. In this type of production an entrepreneur bought raw material to be "put out" to the homes of workers to be spun, woven, sewn, or handled in some other manner. This permitted a division of labor and a degree of specialization among various families. Pay was by the piece, and children were used extensively at whatever tasks they could perform. This system was important in England, on the Continent, and in North America from the 16th to the 18th century and lingers until the present in some industries and in some countries.

The domestic system was largely replaced by the factory system associated with the Industrial Revolution, which gained impetus in the 18th century. Machinery, driven by waterpower and later by steam, took over many functions formerly performed by hand labor and was centralized in factories situated at the source of the power. Children could and did tend the machines in ever increasing numbers from as early an age as five. Child labor also proliferated in coal mining. Half-naked children as young as six labored incredibly long hours in the damp and dark. Many of them carried coal in packs on their backs up long ladders to the surface.

Mistreatment of Children. In the 1830s the English Parliament set up a commission to look into the problems of working children. The testimony the commission took is revealing. One worker in a textile mill testified that he first went to work at the age of eight and that he customarily had worked from 6 A.M. to 8 P.M., with an hour off at noon. When business was brisk, however, he worked a 16-hour span, from 5 A.M. to 9 P.M. When asked how he could be punctual and how he awoke, the boy said, "I seldom did awake spontaneously; I was most generally awoke or lifted out of bed, sometimes asleep, by my parents."

A boy whose services had been sold by his parents to a mill owner (for 15 shillings for six years) testified that the child laborers in that mill were locked up night and day. He said that twice he ran away, was pursued and caught by his overseer, and was thrashed with a whip.

A girl who worked in the mines testified:

I never went to day school; I go to Sunday school, but I cannot read or write; I go to the mine at 5 o'clock in the morning and come out at 5 in the evening; I get my breakfast of porridge and milk first; I take my dinner with me, a cake, and eat it as I go; I do not stop or rest any time for that purpose; I get nothing else until I get home, and then have potatoes and meat, not every day meat. I work in the clothes I have now got on, trousers and ragged jacket; the bald place upon my head is made by carrying the coal buckets. I carry the buckets a mile and more under ground and back; I carry 11 a day; I wear a belt and chain at the workings to get the buckets out; the miners that I work for are naked except for their caps; they pull off all their clothes; I see them at work when I go up; sometimes they beat me, if I am not quick enough, with their hands; they strike me upon my back; the boys take liberties with me; I would rather work in a mill than in a coal-pit.

Pauper Children. During the great social dislocations of the early Industrial Revolution, there were many children who had no parents or whose parents could not support them. Under the English Poor Law then in effect, local government officials were supposed to arrange for these children to become apprentices so that they would learn a trade and be cared for. In thousands of cases these so-called pauper children were simply turned over in large numbers to a distant mill owner by the local officials. After having been thus "apprenticed," they had virtually no one to care or intercede for them and were little better than slaves.

Other working children were indentured—their parents sold their labor to the mill owner for a period of years. Others lived with their families and worked for wages as adults did, for long hours and under hard conditions.

Effects of Economic Doctrines. The situation was made possible by the economic doctrines widely believed at the time. Employers, following Adam Smith, felt that the government should not meddle in business. They believed that economic affairs should be allowed to run according to their own "natural laws," much as the physical world was regulated by such laws as the law of gravity. One of the "natural laws" of economics that businessmen thought they perceived was the "iron law of wages," which held that wages could not possibly rise above a subsistence level. So, low wages and long hours seemed inevitable.

Furthermore, idle hands were looked on as the devil's tools, while work was thought to be morally uplifting. Employers felt that they were doing the poor a favor by providing them with useful work. Such ideas were widely accepted. President Washington's secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, approved of child labor. In his Report on Manufactures (1791) to Congress, Hamilton advocated a tariff and other policies to encourage manufacturing because, among other reasons, it would make possible wider employment of women and children.

In western Europe the factory system appeared later than in England. When it did become important, in the 1830s in France and a decade or two earlier in the Rhine provinces of Germany, conditions similar to the worst in England soon appeared.

Regulation of Child Labor

The movement to limit child labor sprang from several sources. The crowded and unsanitary conditions existing when children lived in factory dormitories gave rise to epidemics that spread to the nearby population. Concerned medical men warned that the rigors of childhood employment resulted in a permanently weakened and damaged labor force. Some people were concerned because child laborers had no time for religious instruction. (Sunday schools, when they were first started, taught reading and writing as well as religious subjects. They were intended for working children who received no other schooling.) There was concern about this lack of education and also about the immoral atmosphere of factory dormitories.

England and Europe. Some mill owners worked for the passage of regulatory laws because they disliked employing young children, but they could not stop unless their competitors also did, a situation that could be brought about only by legislation. England passed the first amelioratory legislation, the First Factory Act, in 1802, but it applied only to children who had been apprentices under the poor laws. At any rate, it was not enforced. But other factory acts followed in 1819, 1825, 1833, 1844, and 1878. These measures gradually widened and strengthened inspection, shortened the hours, and raised the age at which children might go to work.

In France children under ten were barred from the mines as early as 1813. After an investigation by the French Academy of Sciences, a regulatory law curbed the worst features of child labor in that country in 1841.

In Prussia the government became concerned about child labor because the army complained that industrial employment made boys unfit for later military service. As a result a regulatory law was passed in 1839.

Switzerland, the Low Countries, and the Scandinavian countries enacted legislation at about the same pace as France and Germany, but Spain, Italy, the Balkan countries, and Russia lagged far behind during the 19th century.

United States. Children worked in the American colonies, most of all on the family farm but also in various kinds of household industries, as apprentices, at sea, as indentured servants, and as slaves. In 1789 textile manufacturing on the English pattern was transplanted to the northern and middle states. As in England, children were the bulk of the labor force at first, but the United States did not have a great supply of pauper children as did England at the time, so that before long, women, many of them young, became the mainstay of the labor force in textiles.

State Legislation. Some states passed protective legislation, if it can be called that. In 1836 a Massachusetts law required that working children receive some schooling. In 1842 Connecticut and Massachusetts limited the work of children in textile factories to ten hours a day. Pennsylvania in 1848 outlawed the hiring of children under 12 in the mills. The struggle for the free, compulsory public education that characterized the years before the Civil War was indirectly a campaign against excessive child labor.

Reliable statistics about child labor in the United States exist only from 1870. Beginning in that year the census reported child laborers as a separate category. About 750,000 workers 15 and under were reported in the 1870 census. Certainly it did not report many more who helped with family farms, stores, or other enterprises. Rapid industrialization came after 1870, and for the next 40 years child workers increased both in numbers and as a percentage of the child population. As a result the campaign for child labor laws became an important reform movement and remained so for more than 50 years.

By 1900 about half of the states placed some sort of restrictions on child labor, but only about ten made a serious effort to enforce such laws as there were. The South was finally industrializing as textile manufacturing moved from New England to be close to its raw materials (and to take advantage of cheap labor). In the process the South appeared destined to repeat all the horrors of the early Industrial Revolution. The number of child laborers in the South tripled between 1890 and 1900.

Elsewhere in the country the glass industry employed young boys for 12-hour shifts in front of fiery furnaces. The domestic system lingered on in the garment industry, where whole families labored for subcontractors in tenement sweatshops. In the coalfields boys tended the "breakers." There they sat hunched over chutes as coal poured beneath them, picked out the stone and slate, and breathed coal dust for ten hours at a stretch. The tobacco industry employed thousands of children under ten to make cigars and cigarettes. In silk spinning, artificial flower making, oyster shucking, berry picking, canning, and shrimp packing, the story was the same.

A number of organizations worked to eliminate child labor. The unions opposed it on both humanitarian and economic grounds. The National Consumers League, an organization of middle-class and well-to-do reformers founded in 1899, tried to use the economic and political pressure of consumers on behalf of many causes. The National Child Labor Committee, launched in 1904 by social workers in the settlement houses and joined by others, coordinated the battle. These progressive organizations plus the labor movement were responsible for such state laws as were passed.

National Legislation. The limited value of state laws soon became apparent. Labor and the Progressives had little influence in a number of states, especially in the South, so that state laws there were out of the question. As a result businesses in such states had a competitive advantage, and this stiffened resistance to strengthening or even enforcing laws in more progressive states. A national law appeared to be the only answer, and a campaign for one began. Public support was mobilized by several of the "muckrakers," the journalists who exposed intolerable conditions. The cause was helped incalculably by an angry bit of verse penned by one of the reformers, Sarah N. Cleghorn:

The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.

In 1912 the U.S. Congress was persuaded to establish a Children's Bureau. The battle appeared won in 1916 when, during the high tide of the progressive crusade, President Wilson wrestled through Congress the Keating-Owen Act, which barred from interstate commerce articles produced by child labor. The victory was brief, however, for a conservative Supreme Court in 1918 in Hammer v. Dagenhart declared the law unconstitutional because it infringed on states' rights and denied children the "freedom" to contract to work. Congress swiftly reenacted the measure as a part of the Revenue Act of 1919, this time outlawing products produced by children by putting a special tax on such products. In 1922 in the case of Bailey v. Drexel Furniture, the Supreme Court again struck down the measure.

The only road still open was the tortuous one of a constitutional amendment. Congress proposed one in 1924 and sent it to the states for ratification. But the national mood in the 1920s was far different from what it had been ten years before. Progressives were dispirited and divided; conservatism was in the ascendancy. Among those who opposed ratification of the proposed amendment were the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the southern textile industry. They were joined by most of the Roman Catholic hierarchy of the country, who argued that the amendment threatened parental discipline and invaded the privacy of the home. Faced with this weighty array of enemies, the amendment was defeated in most states. A White House Conference on Child Health and Protection in 1930 did help to keep attention focused on the problem. (Another such conference, the Mid-century White House Conference on Children and Youth, was held in 1950.)

During the New Deal years the political pendulum had swung again, and new national efforts were made. Measures against child labor were included in the codes of the National Recovery Administration in 1933. The codes, too, were declared unconstitutional but not because of the child labor provisions. In 1938 the far-reaching Fair Labor Standards Act once again struck at child labor. This time the Supreme Court, its composition altered by time, upheld the law. This act, also known as the Wages and Hours Act, with its amendments, is now the basic child labor act for the United States. It bans employers engaged in interstate commerce from employing workers under 16 or under 18 in hazardous occupations. Under certain circumstances children 14 to 16 may be employed after school hours. The states may further control child labor as long as their legislation does not conflict with federal law.

There is, however, some concern about violations of these laws and the effects of such violations on children's health and development. Despite this concern and the longtime regulation of child labor, no systematic information is available on how many children in the United States work in violation of child labor laws, or on the causes and consequences of illegal child labor. Whether and how children should be employed have long been subject to competing views in the United States. Some have argued that child labor can enhance skill development and socialization into the world of work and steer children away from delinquency. On the other side are those who fear that it may limit the time and energy spent on more valuable formal education, expose children to excessive hazards, and otherwise threaten or limit child development. These issues animate current policy-related discussions of school-to-work transitions and are prominent in the debate over international labor standards.

At the turn of the 21st century, child labor in the United States was a recognized problem in only one sector of the economy, agriculture. Federal law required only that children under 16 could not be employed in agriculture during school hours. Therefore, small children could be worked long hours in farming during other times, especially because state laws covering child labor in agriculture were generally lax or nonexistent. Hardest hit were the children of migrant farm laborers. In 1994 the U.S. Department of Education identified more than 657,000 students as eligible for the federally funded Migrant Education Program. According to U.S. Labor Department data, 40% of these young farmworkers worked in excess of 13 weeks a year, which meant, given the U.S. school schedule, that they were in the fields while classes were in session.

Other possible areas of illegal child labor in the United States included "sweatshops" (defined as businesses that regularly violated laws regarding safety and health, wages, or child labor) and home-based work in family businesses, particularly in the apparel industry. According to estimates based on the Current Population Survey, the National Longitudinal Survey, and other sources, in 2000 some 154,000 minors were employed illegally in an average week, and 301,000 in a year.

Canada. Child labor never became a serious problem in Canada because that nation remained predominately agricultural until well into the 20th century. The Canadian provinces have child labor laws that vary slightly among themselves but are generally comparable to U.S. legislation. In addition Canada has had since 1945 a family allowance system. This provides that all mothers are paid a sum each month to help in the maintenance of each child from birth through age 16. The allowance is paid only if the child remains in school. This program has virtually ended child labor in Canada. At the beginning of the 21st century, only about a third of Canada's 15- to 19-year-olds were officially listed as being in paid employment, approximately half the percentage in the United States.

Recent International Developments

Child labor on the world scene first came under attack in 1900, when the International Association for Labor Legislation was founded. The cause has since been taken over by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), established by the Treaty of Versailles and now a specialized agency of the United Nations.

By the end of the 20th century, virtually every nation had excellent child welfare legislation on the books, but enforcement remained spotty or almost nonexistent. In 2001 the ILO reported that worldwide 250 million children who should have been in school were instead working, many of them in conditions of virtual slavery. In over 30 countries, covering 35% of the world population, 19% of 5- to 14-year-old children were working. The most extreme forms of child labor and exploitation identified by the ILO included slave and slavelike practices; forced or compulsory labor, including debt bondage and serfdom; sexual exploitation; use of children in drug trafficking; use of children as soldiers; and hazardous work in agriculture, mining, fishing, textiles, and other industries.

Developed countries report low rates of youth employment, but it is not known how many children and teenagers work outside the systems of labor law enforcement and enumeration (such as in family-owned businesses and illegal activities). The countries of southern Europe (Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece) reveal employment patterns that resembel in some respects those of the developing world, with children employed in large numbers in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors (particularly footwear, apparel, and textiles). The presence of street children (runaways and homeless young people) is characteristic of urban areas throughout the developed world. They are sometimes forced by adults into illicit labor activities or prostitution. Central to the child prostitution problem is the impetus it receives from child-sex tourism, whereby visitors from developed countries prey on youths in Southeast Asia, Mexico, and other regions who have been forced into the sex industry.

In developing countries child trafficking remains a widespread practice; it is often parents driven by poverty who compel their children to work for third parties on slaverylike or bondagelike terms. Children are trafficked for work on plantations or mine sites (West Africa), in factories (Southeast Asia), or as camel-racing jockeys (Gulf states). Children trafficked from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa reportedly work in domestic service or in sweatshops run by members of the same ethnic groups in developed countries. Children are abducted and transported for and by governments and rebel militias and used as soldiers in some African countries and elsewhere.

A number of ILO conventions recommend to member countries minimal legislation regarding child labor, but they do not have the power to obtain enactment. The UN General Assembly in 1959 adopted a Declaration of the Rights of the Child, but it is only advisory. Perhaps the worst problems in the 1960s lay in countries (especially in much of Latin America) where there was a flood of immigration from the countryside to cities that could not grow fast enough to provide even minimal services. There was a shortage of schools, and many children entered various street trades to help supplement pitifully meager family incomes. Child labor also remained a problem under the commune system of agricultural organization in some rural areas of the People's Republic of China. In some places there were insufficient schools or the labor of children could not be spared. A Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the United Nations in 1989, but it too is only advisory. In September 1990 the World Summit for Children took place in UN headquarters in New York City; 71 heads of state and government and 88 other senior delegates from around the world signed the World Declaration on Survival, Protection and Development of Children. They also adopted monitoring procedures to evaluate the status of children in the world and measures to improve "living conditions of children and their chances for survival." In May 2002 the Special Session of the UN General Assembly on Children reaffirmed the commitment of governments to promote and protect the rights of the child, including the right to protection from economic exploitation.

Hugh G. Cleland
State University of New York at Stony Brook


Aries, Philippe, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (Random House 1962).

Ashby, LeRoy, Saving the Waifs: Reformers and Dependent Children, 1890–1917 (Temple Univ. Press 1984).

Chambers, Clarke A., Seedtime of Reform: American Social Service and Social Action, 1918–1933 (Greenwood Press 1980).

Dorman, Peter, Child Labour in the Developed Economies: Working Paper (Intl. Labor Office 2001).

Dunlop, Jocelyn, and R. P. Denman, English Apprenticeship and Child Labor: A History (Gordon Press 1976).

Fuller, Raymond G., Child Labor and the Constitution (1923; reprint, Ayer 1974).

Fyfe, Alec, Child Labour (Polity Press 1989).

Fyfe, Alec, and Michele Jankanish, Trade Unions and Child Labour: A Guide to Action (Intl. Labor Office 1996).

Grootaert, Christiaan, and Harry A. Patrinos, eds., The Policy Analysis of Child Labor: A Comparative Study (St. Martin's 1999).

Haspells, Nelien, and Michele Jankanish, eds., Action against Child Labour (Brookings Inst. 2000).

Hawes, Joseph M., The Children's Rights Movement: A History of Advocacy and Protection (Twayne 1991).

Hindman, Hugh D., Child Labor: An American History (Sharpe, M. E. 2002).

Hobbs, Sandy, et al., Child Labor: A World History Companion (ABC-Clio 1999).

James, Allison, et al., Theorizing Childhood (Polity Press 1998).

Kielburger, Craig, Free the Children: A Young Man Fights against Child Labor and Proves that Children Can Change the World (HarperCollins 1999).

Lavalette, Michael, ed., Child Employment in the Capitalist Labour Market (Avebury 1994).

Lavalette, Michael, ed., A Thing of the Past? Child Labour in Britain in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (St. Martin's 1999).

McIntish, Robert G., Boys in the Pits: Child Labour in Coal Mining (McGill-Queen's Univ. Press 2000).

Meltzer, Milton, Cheap Raw Material: How Our Youngest Workers Are Exploited and Abused (Viking 1994).

Mizen, Phillip, et al., eds., Hidden Hands: International Perspectives on Children's Work and Labor (Routledge 2001).

Mofford, Juliet H., Child Labor in America (Discovery 1997).

Nardinelli, Clark, Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution (Indiana Univ. Press 1990).

National Research Council, Protecting Youth at Work (Natl. Academy Press 1998).

O'Higgins, Niall, Youth Unemployment and Employment Policy: A Global Perspective (Intl. Labor Office 2001).

Report on the Youth Labor Force (U.S. Dept. of Labor 2000).

Sawyer, Roger, Children Enslaved (Routledge 1988).

Seabreek, Jeremy, Children of Other Worlds: Exploitation in the Global Market (Pluto Press 2001).

Sereny Gitta, The Invisible Children: Child Prostitution in America, West Germany and Great Britain (Knopf 1985).

Song, Miri, Helping Out: Children's Labor in Ethnic Businesses (Temple Univ. Press 1999).

Tucker, Lee, Fingers to the Bone: United States Failure to Protect Child Farmworkers (Human Rights Watch 2000).

Zelizer, Viviana A., Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (1985; reprint, Princeton Univ. Press 1994).