Her thoughts — The History of US Child Labor Laws

Published 12:00 pm Sunday, March 27, 2022

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I remember reading a book titled The Jungle by Upton Sinclair when I was in high school. It was about factory workers in Chicago in the 1930s, some were immigrants, others had migrated from the south and some were northern born. All were employed in unsafe working conditions. In fact, these employees included young children. Amid the friction, between races and cultures exploited by the powers that be, workers were subjected to an atmosphere of putting profit over safety. Over 400 years ago child labor was thought to be a productive outlet for children. Orphan children at age 13 were put to work in a trade or as a domesticate because of laws that wanted to ensure that children were not a burden to society. As economic tension increased between America and England an independent manufacturing sector developed. Women and children entered the workforce while husbands tended the farm at home.

Employment involving children can garner responsibility which is a quality that is beneficial for a lifetime. You want that for your children, yet, safety, whether in the fields or factories, should be a top priority for successful production of a specific product. In the United States factory owners hired young people for various tasks. Especially in textile mills children were hired along with their parents and were paid only $2 a week. Children were small in stature and they could fix machinery and move in small spaces that adults could not. Many families depended on child labor in mill towns to make enough money for necessities. In fact, if miners had additional help in loading coal extra money was made so existing laws were not adhered to. According to the 1900 U.S. Census an estimated 1,750,178 children from ages 10 to 15 were employees making up 18 % of the industrial labor force, which increased steadily after 1870 with the percentage decreasing after World War I. In agriculture, from 1910 to 1920 more than 60 % of child workers were employed in the U. S. Every boy born into a farm family was worth a thousand dollars; the youngest was as young as three years old.

Since the Constitution gave rights to parents to raise their children as they pleased, the federal government was limited in instituting child labor laws. It was up to the city of the states to create their own laws which detailed working age and school requirements. For children 14 or 15 states gave work permits for regular full time work in order to work in manufacturing and sales but none were necessary for agriculture work. In 1904 The National Children Labor Committee(NCLC) was formed to abolish all child labor and it mobilized strong support for the mission at the state level with their publications about the lives and working conditions of child laborers. In 1906 the first child labor bill was introduced by Republican Senator Albert J. Beveridge at the national level. The bill was struck down by President Theodore Roosevelt. Consequently, in 1916 the U. S. Congress, under pressure from, the NCLC and the National Consumer League passed the Keating-Owen Act outlawing interstate commerce involving goods produced by 14-16 years old depending on the work type. After several setbacks, which included the U. S. Supreme Court striking down court cases pertaining to regulating child labor in business and across state lines, eventually, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938(FLSA) on June 25, 1938. Basically, the law created a minimum wage requirement, overtime pay when people work over 40 hours a week and prohibits abuse of child labor in oppressive and unsafe conditions. For non-agricultural jobs children under 14 may not be employed, those between 14 and 16 may be employed in occupations with limited hours and children between 16 and 18 can work for unlimited hours in non-hazardous conditions. There are exceptions such as parental employment, newspaper delivery and child actors. Generally the laws in the agricultural sector are less strict.

While it is important to give our young people experience in working and promoting responsibility, it is equally imperative that we create atmospheres that are safe and productive places to fulfill job performance as well as foster ingenuity and creativity. Why not have some fun along the way?

Judy Moore can be reached at v5agabond2@gmail.com and is a tour guide at The Central High Museum. She lives in Wylliesburg.