When Labor Day was celebrated yesterday (9/3) and Trump insulted a labor union leader, I recalled writing a book about child labor, published twenty years ago. In the early 1900s, the dire conditions of young children in the labor force were a national and international crisis that needed to be addressed legally, politically, and socially. These child laborers, some as young as five years old, worked in hazardous industries such as coal mines, cotton mills and industrial factories. Three and four year olds labored in cotton fields and for seafood companies where they picked shrimp. Preteens worked in road building for 12 hours a day. Others labored in sugar cane fields.
In Child Labor: A Global Crisis, I included examples of children working in “sweatshops.” The term stems from the poorly ventilated, unsanitary, and hazardous workplaces in the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s. While industries in the United States have been forced by law to improve workplaces, sweatshops were common (and some still are) in countries that exported goods to America.
Consider this story from India where eight-year-old Laxmi Sada and three of his friends were kidnapped by thugs who forced the boys to work in a carpet factory. ”I didn’t even know what a carpet factory was,” Laxmi said. At the factory he was often beaten and like thousands of other young laborers in sweatshops he could not even leave his work to go to the bathroom.
Before laws passed to protect child laborers in the United States, children were working in industrial sweatshops, in cotton and tobacco fields, and in coal mines. Fourteen and fifteen year olds often worked in Appalachian mines where their health was impaired by coal dust and long 12-hour days.
Early in the 1900s, the U.S. Congress authorized the National Child Labor Committee to “promote the welfare of America’s working children.” The NCLC investigated numerous child-labor conditions and published their findings. But there were no widespread protests until the NCLC hired photographer Lewis Hine to document child-labor practices. (Some of his photographs were included in a Washington Post front page feature on September 3, 2018.)
Hine traveled across the nation, taking photographs showing the wretchedness of children working in mills, mines, canneries, and agriculture. After his photographs were published, U.S. legislators began to take notice. States and the federal government passed some protective laws for child laborers. A federal Fair Labors Standards Act, passed in 1938, has since been amended many times and now sets wage, hours worked, and safety requirements for minors (individuals under age 18) working in various “enterprises” and institutions that the law covers. “The rules vary depending upon the particular age of the minor and the particular job involved. As a general rule, the FLSA sets 14 years of age as the minimum age for employment, and limits the number of hours worked by minors under the age of 16,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The DOL has created websites for young people that provide information on a range of topics.
In spite of the FLSA, some preteens and teenagers are still endangered on agricultural jobs, which are exempt from FLSA requirements. Workers as young as twelve are allowed to labor in tobacco fields, for example. They wear masks and plastic garbage bags to try to protect themselves from nicotine poisoning and toxic pesticides. One teenager said harvesting tobacco was “the hardest of all the crops we’ve worked in. You get tired. It takes the energy out of you. You get sick, but then you have to go right back to the tobacco the next day.”
The Child Labor Coalition, which was established twenty years ago, is tackling the problem of children working in tobacco fields. The Coalition also works on a broad array of national and international child labor issues, such as trafficking, safety, health, and education. They are joined by other organizations, including Human Rights Watch, the International Labor Right Forum, World Vision, and UNICEF USA. These organizations have helped eliminate some brutal child-labor practices, but as a UNICEF spokesperson put it: “hazardous child labor must be…consigned to history as completely as those other forms of slavery that it so closely resembles.”