While we continue to explore the historical labor events of the past, we can’t dismiss the powerful impact of child labor and the regulations that formed to prevent such work to be completed.
The Long History of Child Labor
Since the beginning of human history, children have been enlisted to help their adult counterparts manage the often challenging and hardworking elements of life. Prior to the 20th century, education was reserved only for the wealthiest families leaving the majority of children free to help families run businesses, act as apprentices, or be hired out to help the unit achieve financial security.
While children were a prevalent majority of the world’s workforce for most of history, the way in which labor changed throughout the industrial revolution ultimately called for reforms. These reforms would build a foundation on the regulations we follow today.
The Dawn of a New Era
During the industrial era, a push for a reformed education system began its slow climb. While more children spent the majority of their days in primary school, thousands of children were also recruited to work in devastating factory conditions. Because children were cheaper to hire and were often better suited for the menial factory tasks, it became commonplace for children to spend 10-12 hours a day working in dangerous conditions.
And it wasn’t just the salary that was attractive to employers. Entire industries were exploding with growth, and companies were unable to fill positions fast enough. Hiring children provided employers with an easy option. Best of all, hiring youth provided companies with decades of young and able bodied employees.
According to History.com, in 1900, 18 percent of all American workers were under the age of 16.
This significant number would soon break; thanks to the tireless efforts of childhood advocates and early social workers, who rallied for children to leave the workplace and enter the school environment.
The National Child Labor Committee was organized in 1904 and sought to reform more than child labor laws. With a focus on education, the committee encouraged dozens of state legislatures, yet found themselves up against solid walls. It would take the nation until the Great Depression and, and more significantly, the passing of the Labor Standards Act of 1938 for real change to finally emerge.
The root of the act’s success? With so few jobs available, adults lobbied for the positions that children occupied. The act mandated several regulations that severely limited the amount of time that children could work each day, thus offering the coveted positions up for grabs to adult workers.
Throughout the 20th century, additional laws would push children out of the workplace and into the classroom. With an emphasis on education as a valuable and necessary tool to thrive in today’s economy, successful reforms lengthened the school day and placed an emphasis on hiring skilled workers with suitable education backgrounds.
“The phoenix must burn to emerge,” says writer Janet Fitch. If that is to be true, perhaps the children of our nation’s past had to suffer through tragic circumstances to eventually meet the necessary reforms that we owe all of the children of the world.