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Labor and Labor Practices

Child Labor

The perception of child labor as a social evil to be eradicated began with industrialization and wage labor. In earlier times children had always worked, and for them to do so was regarded not as a necessary evil but as a positive good. Religious proscriptions against idleness and the acquisition of work skills weighed heavily in favor of child labor. Children who worked also did not become dependent on public welfare. Work in the preindustrial age, however, did not put children into a hazardous, impersonal environment. Children typically worked as apprentices in tradesmen's shops and in the homes and on the farms of their families. Apprentice work usually included some rudimentary general education as well as specific occupational training; children who worked on family farms were not separated from their parents, and they performed jobs assigned with their youth taken into account.

As organized manufacturing came into being, it was natural for factory owners to use children as laborers. In 1790 the workforce at Samuel Slater's first mill in Rhode Island consisted mostly of children ages seven to 12. Soon large numbers of children worked in factories under harsh conditions in unhealthy, dangerous environments. In most cases their parents needed their children's contribution to family income, so there was little resistance to the factory child labor system.

Opposition slowly grew to child labor as its deleterious effects spread through the population. Many children grew up malformed from constant physical labor, became sick, or died in accidents. A further impetus to opposing child labor was the growing recognition of the need for education; as various impediments to suffrage grew, literacy as a requisite for citizenship became apparent. Slowly, states began to enact child labor laws, setting minimum age requirements for work. Standards were not strict, however; for example, in the 1850s minimum work ages were ten in New Jersey, twelve in Rhode Island, and nine in Connecticut. Children often fared worse in the South, where children as young as six and seven worked in textile mills.

By 1913 most states required a minimum age of 14 for factory work, but agricultural and domestic work was not regulated. Further, the laws that did exist were poorly enforced. Additionally, competition from firms in other less-regulated states kept pressure on employers to keep costs down.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesLabor and Labor Practices - Introduction, The Wagner Act, The Taft-hartley Act, An Overview Of Labor Law