Child Labor Overview and History

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Child labor has been part of human history since early times. Slaves and peasants were used to build the Great Wall of China, over 2000 years ago. Many of these people were children. Child labor hadn't become a problem yet. Children usually worked for their families. It was only when the factory form of labor was created during the Industrial Revolution in the Unites States in the late 1800's that child labor started raising concerns.

Children who worked in mines had particularly bad conditions. They were forced to work with very sharp objects and inhale smoke.


Before the Industrial Revolution, children worked with their families on their farms. Most people didn't go to school back then, so children worked at young ages. Child labor became a problem in the 1800's when the factory form of labor was created. Children usually had poor working conditions, low wages, and dangerous machinery to work with. In 1810 in the United States, there were two million children employed in sweatshops, or terrible workplaces. In 1832, 40% of factory workers in England were between the ages of seven and 16. From 1890 to 1910, hundreds of thousands of people immigrated to the US. Many of these immigrants were children. In many cases, children were sent to the US to support their families. Many were forced into terrible jobs. The horrors of child labor were only revealed to the naive, when hundreds of children starved during the Great Depression, a time of extreme inflation when money was worth almost nothing. Near the end of the Great Depression (1938), the Fair Labor Standards Act made child labor illegal.

Working Places

Children in factories worked long hours and, in some cases, some children were abused so much and paid so little that it was almost considered slavery. Children were a big part of the slave trade in the USA during the 1800's before the American Civil War.

Child labor in the 19th-20th century

In the early 1800's, factories dominated the world of production.Clothes were mass produced, all exactly the same way. There were many factories that only made one product. These factories had machines that had small parts that required nimble fingers. In the eyes of factory owners, child labor was ideal. Children were small and could put their hands into crevices that an adult would normally not be able to reach. Also, children could usually be paid less, and it was harder for them to go on strike.

Glass Factories

In the early 20th century, thousands of children (mainly boys) were employed in glass factories. Current technologies allow people to avoid immense heat and bright lights, but glass factories in the 20th century did not have many safety precautions. Glass making requires intense heat to melt glass (3133° F/1723°C). When children are exposed to this heat, it can cause lung problems, blindness, cuts, and burns. Glass furnaces had to be constantly burning, so there were many times when children had to work very late. Many factory owners preferred children under the age of 16.

Home-based manufacturing

Child labor has also been a problem at homes. They were especially appealing to families in need of a source of income because they were usually open all year long. During the 1800's and 1900's, millions of children worked at other family's homes to produce garments, shoes, artificial flowers, feathers, match boxes, toys, umbrellas and other products. Only in 1946 did someone tell the ILO (International Labor Organization) how bad the conditions were in these workplaces.

Causes of child labor

Poverty is the greatest cause of child labor. The money a child makes is usually important to their own survival or the survival of his/her family. Another factor in child labor is lack of affordable education. Children work because they have nothing better to do. Children can support their families this way, and children don't have any reason to sit around in a hut being useless.

Child labor in the modern day

Child labor is still a problem today. In many developing nations, such as those in Africa and parts of southeast Asia, still have extremely high levels of child labor. Child labor occurs mostly in rural areas. Most child laborers (2/3), instead of being employed by factories, are actually employed by their parents, in unpaid family work. Over 65 million children under 17 are employed in child labor in Africa alone. In 2004, about 60% of child labor occurred in agricultural jobs such as farming and fishing. Today, organizations such as UNICEF work to prevent and stop child labor around the globe.

Created By
Adrien Zhong


Created with images by Children's Bureau Centennial - "LC-DIG-nclc-00725 Child Labor Rural" • PublicDomainArchive - "child labor historic people" • Family Tree Magazine - "Horse-drawn fire engines on their way to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire"

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