Little Bits of History

Child Labor Law

Posted in History by patriciahysell on February 28, 2011

Factory workers

February 29, 1916: In South Carolina, a law is passed raising the minimum age for children factory workers from twelve to fourteen. Children have worked on the farm and in houses since time immemorial. However, with the Industrial Revolution, children were sent to the factories to work. They were employed in dangerous, sometimes fatal, jobs and were working as young as age four. Victorian England became notorious for hiring young, small children to work in mines and as chimney sweeps, as well.

Children would be pressed into work if their families were placed in debtor’s prison. The youngsters were expected to help with the family’s financial situation. They often worked long hours and were only paid 10-20% of an adult male’s wage. In 1788 about two-thirds of those employed in Scotland and England in their 143 water-powered cotton mills were classified as children. By the 1800s, one-third of households had children as the major breadwinners, either through neglect, abandonment, or death of parents.

Small children could crawl through narrow mine shafts which could not accommodate grown men. They also took jobs as errand runners or crossing sweepers [cleaning up horse manure and other detritus] in hopes of the wealthy walker offering them a tip. Small children would gain work as shoe blacks or selling cheap goods such as matches or flowers. There was better paid and more respectable work to be gained as either apprentices or domestic help. However, both of these types of employment could lead to abuse, physical and sexual. Even more sadly, a number of children would be put to work as prostitutes.

Apprentice construction workers could work 64 hours per week in the summer and a mere 52 hours per week in the winter. Domestic servants could work 80 hours per week. Many children [as well as adults] worked 16 hour days. In 1802 and 1819, laws were passed decreasing a normal workday to 12 hours. They were not, however, enforced. Today, in industrialized countries, there are much stricter labor laws, especially for children. In poorer or third world countries, child labor continues to be a human rights issue. According to UNICEF, there are still 158 million children aged 5 – 14 involved in child labor worldwide.

“Child labor and poverty are inevitably bound together and if you continue to use the labor of children as the treatment for the social disease of poverty, you will have both poverty and child labor to the end of time.” – Grace Abbott

“Children do not constitute anyone’s property: they are neither the property of their parents nor even of society. They belong only to their own future freedom.” – Mikhail Bakunin

“These children and their parents know that getting an education is not only their right, but a passport to a better future – for the children and for the country.” – Harry Belafonte

“When the lives and the rights of children are at stake, there must be no silent witnesses.” – Carol Bellamy

Also on this day:
Hammerin’ Hank – In 1972, Hank Aaron signed with the Atlanta Braves for a record salary.
Leap days – In 1584, Leap Day first appeared on calendars.