Although forms of child labor are still in affect today, the worst of it is in the past. Commonly defined as work performed by children endangering their health or safety, interfering with their education, or keeping them from activities that are important for their development, child labor began centuries ago. It started with the rise of industrial production and capitalism in the United States (Shahrokhi). The worst took place in the 1800’s and early 1900’s when such industrialization was on the rise, and before laws were in effect.
However, child labor in all forms has not been fully removed from society today. The most common places that children were put to work were textile factories, coal mills, farms, and other various factories. The reason that children were put to work in these environments is primarily due to machines. They were responsible for keeping the machines running smoothly, even if it put them in danger. In textile mills the youngest were known as “scavengers” and “piecers” (Child Labor). The scavengers would pick up the loose cotton from underneath the machinery, while it was still in motion.
The piecers were stationed where wool was spinning. They had to reach in to fix any threads that broke and carefully repair them. Piecers had very little time to do this, because the wheel was still spinning as they worked. There were also “doffers” who removed bobbins when they filled with thread, and replaced them with empty spools (Innocence 113). These children worked barefoot so that they could climb the machines when needed. Children that were involved with sewing clothing often took garments home after work ours to finish them for the next day (Innocence 110).
Young girls often worked at hosiery mills, and it was documented that their shifts were eleven to twelve hours long, frequently six days a week. These children were expected to stand their entire shifts (Innocence 113). One of the most common places of work was the coal mine. Boys were known as “breaker boys”. Their bodies, including the face, were covered on soot. These workers sat on wood boards straddling the coal chutes and picked out stones from the flowing coal beneath them (Innocence 108). A former child laborer stated that he left school at the age of eight to work in the mines.
He was out of bed at five-thirty every morning and had to walk in the snow to work. He was then carried into the dangerous mill with a fellow worker (Bartoletti 11). The conditions in most factories were extremely unhealthy and dangerous in many ways. Most were not ventilated or drained well, dirty, and there was no place to clean up or wash hands. The dust and cotton fibers floating in the air caused many illnesses (Child Labor). Accidents were very common as well due to the unguarded machinery. Frighteningly, one of the most common injuries was the loss of limbs, including fingers and toes (Child Labor).
One twelve year old “doffer” fell in to a spinning machine, losing two of his fingers (Innocence 113). Factory owners were responsible for supplying the workers with food. However, the quality was bad, and many owners expected the workers to continue their jobs as they ate, meaning that they had no breaks and their food was covered in dust and other debris (Child Labor). Children were also punished for being late, becoming drowsy on the job, or working too slow. The overseers would beat them with leather straps, or dip them head first into water if they were tired (Child Labor).
Perhaps one of the best and most well known documenters for fighting against child labor was a man by the name of Lewis Hine. He once commented, “There is work that profits children, and there is work that brings only profit to employers,” (Innocence 108). In the early twentieth century, he photographed coal mines, textile mills, and tenement sweatshops for almost ten years (Innocence 108). Factory owners rarely allowed him to come in so he would disguise himself as various other professionals who would need photographs for their line of work.
In 1908, Hine was hired by the National Child Labor Committee (Innocence 108). The NCLC lobbied for federal laws that regulated the employment of young children. Hine’s work appeared in newspapers, magazines, and NCLC publications throughout the country, causing a wide response and support for the cause by the American public (Innocence 108). Despite the efforts of people like Hine and many organizations, the United States continues to put children to work illegally, whether that means underage, long hours, below the minimum wage, or performing hazardous tasks.
Children are being employed in agricultural fields and factories all over America, and some United States companies are putting them to work in sweatshops across the world where governments have a difficult time protecting the children. Whether they are in America or somewhere else in the world, these young laborers are not only hidden from the consumers, but also the companies purchasing the products. Back in 1938, congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, with the purpose of ending child labor (Foster). It did decline over many years, but has since leveled off after 1995.
In 1997, the Associated Press discovered some disturbing statistics. While trying to uncover the secrets of child labor, they came to find 165 children illegally working throughout sixteen states (Foster). Wanting to find more significant numbers, the AP went to a labor economist from Rutgers University by the name of Douglas L. Kruse. After performing his study, he estimated that 290,200 children were illegally working in 1996 (Foster). Kruse did report that some were teenagers that worked extra hours at their after school jobs.
However, he discovered 59,600 of them were under the age of fourteen, and 13,100 worked in sweatshops (Foster). By hiring underage children to work for them, employers reportedly saved $155 million in 1996 (Foster). The labor laws that were set in the Fair Labor Standards Act are straight forward, but seem far from reasonable. As Kruse said in his study, “Child labor laws for agricultural employment are much less stringent than for nonagricultural employment” (Kramer). There are large differences between agriculture and other occupations.
If working in agriculture children can work at the age of twelve, can work unlimited hours outside of school, and are able to perform hazardous labor activities at sixteen (“Child Farmworkers”). However, in other occupations children cannot start before fourteen years of age, at fourteen and fifteen years children can only work for three hours on school days, a maximum of forty hours a week when not in school, not before seven in the morning, and engaging in hazardous labor is illegal until the age of eighteen (“Child Farmworkers”).
It does not make sense that there should be any differences in the laws, no matter where the children are working. Another problem with the laws is that they are being weakly enforced. With only twenty-three investigators working on farm labor in the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, how can they possibly uncover all of the illegal activity (Child Farmworkers). That is less then one person for every two states. With agriculture being the second most hazardous industry, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration
spent less than three percent of its inspections on it, and the penalty for violations in 1998 was only $971 (Child Farmworkers). When the companies are made aware that their distributors are putting children to work illegally, they do fight it. However, some investigations take years and are not pursued well enough, while other companies say that when they find that child labor was involved with their product, the contract for that supplier will be terminated. Disturbingly enough, most of the companies only take action when it is brought to their attention by a reporter or investigator.
They rarely find the problems on their own. Something that the public may be more knowledgeable of than the child labor that takes place in the United States, is that being done outside of the country, but by US companies. This includes the sweatshops and factories making the clothing, rugs, bedding, and so on that we sell throughout America. Perhaps the most well known case is that of Nike. This came to attention in 1996 in a Life magazine article with a twelve year old in Pakistan stitching together pieces of a Nike soccer ball, receiving only sixty cents for her work that takes most of the day (Nike).
Nike finds the nations that are still developing so that the labor is extremely cheap, and the government does nothing about this because there is a lack of awareness to human rights. The products are then sold for far more than it costs for the materials, and the labor, giving Nike large profits. Nike is only an example of the companies performing child labor in countries abroad. Without laws for attending school like the United States, children are working in agriculture before even going to school. They work seasonally and attend school during non-harvest months (“Commercial Agriculture”).
Those who are trying to put an end to this say that enforcing the attendance of school age children would help end child labor (“Commercial Agriculture”). As said before, agriculture is a very hazardous industry, but the most common for involving child labor. They face a variety of health and safety issues. Outside of the US, children are forced to work without protective equipment and are injured. When they work long hours without rest, children face fatigue resulting in more accidents. Also detected is malnutrition, exposure to disease-carrying animals and toxic chemicals (“Commercial Agriculture”).
Most of the children facing these issues do not receive proper care either. Although the worst of it may be in our past, child labor is still prevalent. Although it is hidden from the public eye in many ways, it is there and is causing many problems. It is terrifying to learn about what children were put through; the harsh conditions, low wages, and long hours. Laws and regulations have helped tremendously. With the help from people like Lewis Hine, children are back to going to school, playing, and bettering themselves for their own future.