Child Labor Laws in America Today

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

Child labor was fairly common prior to and during the Industrial Revolution, but federal laws enacted in the 1930s placed heavy restrictions on the practice. This lesson explores child labor laws in America today.

Child Labor Prior to 1938

How old were you when you started your first job? Probably around age 16 or so, but that wasn't always the norm. In 1900, nearly one in every five American workers was younger than 16.

Child labor used to be common in the U.S. It peaked during the Second Industrial Revolution, or 'American Industrial Revolution', which took place over the second half of the nineteenth century. During that time, innovative manufacturing technologies created new jobs in mills and factories. During that same period, more than 14 million immigrants entered the U.S. - many of whom sought immediate work for all members of their families.

Child workers were useful in the factories. Factory bosses put children to work for long hours, but with far less pay than adults. The children could also get to hard to reach machinery by fitting in tight factory spaces. However, deplorable factory conditions eventually came to light and opposition to the practice slowly grew.

The National Child Labor Committee was formed in 1904 as a political advocacy group. The group used photos of child laborers in pamphlets and mass mailings in order to garner support for labor reform. Many states placed fairly minor restrictions on child labor, mostly with the goal to keep young children in school. Several southern states resisted reform efforts entirely and continued to use child laborers in agricultural mills to process crops like cotton and tobacco.

Child laborers performing factory work.
child laborers

Though Congress passed federal child labor laws in 1916 and 1918, both were declared unconstitutional. Congress followed up by passing a constitutional amendment restricting child labor in 1924, but several states refused to ratify it.

Child Labor After 1938

Though most Americans viewed child labor as an important social issue, very little changed until The Great Depression. This severe economic downturn started with the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and lasted through 1939. The Depression caused a decline in industrial production and an increase in unemployment. As a result, adults needed all available jobs - including those previously held by children.

Child labor also declined due to New Deal legislation. The New Deal was a series of relief and reform measures enacted in order to stimulate the economy and lessen the effects of the Depression. As part of the New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt put the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, or FLSA, into place. The FLSA set a national minimum wage and maximum hour standards for people working in interstate commerce. It also placed federal restrictions on child labor.

Generally, children under the age of 16 were no longer permitted to work in manufacturing or mining. Other businesses were added in 1949, including commercial agriculture, public utilities, and transportation.

Current Child Labor Laws

Today, the main federal law governing child labor continues to be the FLSA, which is enforced through the U.S. Labor Department's Wage & Hour Division. Because we now have separate laws governing education, the FLSA mainly serves to protect children against hazardous, unsanitary, immoral, or unduly burdensome work.

The FLSA applies to businesses with annual sales totaling $500,000 or more, or who engage in interstate commerce. Interstate commerce simply means the business reaches more than one state, like a Texas hat salesman who ships to customers in Colorado or an Oklahoma grocery store that trucks its produce in from California. States have their own laws restricting child labor, so their laws vary, but must be at least as restrictive as the provisions of the FLSA.

FLSA provisions include:

  • Minimum age and wage regulations
  • Hours of work restrictions
  • Prohibited fields and occupations
  • Work permit and age verification requirements

The FLSA also prohibits sweatshops. A sweatshop is a workplace that violates two or more basic labor laws, such as using child labor, not complying with safety regulations or failing to pay minimum wage.

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