Child labor is the employment of children under the age of physical maturity in jobs requiring long hours. In industrialized countries, where laws can be effectively enforced, few persons under the age of 15 are now permitted to work, except on farms or in family enterprises. The laws are not always effectively enforced, however.
The exploitation of children was one of the scandals of the 19th century. The novelist Charles Dickens and the socialist Karl Marx were among those who helped to arouse public opinion against it. The Industrial Revolution had brought numbers of young children into mines and factories where they worked long hours in dangerous and filthy conditions. Children had worked hard long before that time, however, in agriculture and in shops where they worked for their parents.
The first laws regulating child labor were passed in Great Britain in 1802. These were not effective because no provisions were made for enforcing them. The Factory Act of 1833 eliminated some of the worst abuses. In France, Germany, and other countries of Western Europe laws regulating child labor began to appear in the first half of the 19th century. Opposition to child labor came from a variety of sources: from labor unions, social reformers, and even the Prussian army, which was concerned about the physical fitness of its recruits.
In the United States, some states passed laws against child labor in the 19th century, but they were not always enforced. Federal laws prohibiting child labor were twice struck down by the Supreme Court in Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918) and Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Company (1922) before the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. This and the laws of the states now prohibit the employment of children under 16 during school hours. The most extensive use of child labor today is in agriculture, particularly among migrant workers, but even these children are required to attend school.
The problem of child labor has been largely supplanted in the United States by that of unemployment among young people 16 and older who are no longer in school. The exploitation of child labor remains a major problem in many developing countries.
Bibliography: Dunlop, Jocelyn, and Denman, R. P., English Apprenticeship and Child Labor: A History (1976); Fyfe, A., Child Labour (1989); Sawyer, Roger, Children Enslaved (1988); Taylor, Ronald B., Sweatshops in the Sun: Child Labor on the Farm (1973); Trattner, Walter, Crusade for the Children (1970).