child labor

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child labor

child labor, use of the young as workers in factories, farms, mines, and other facilities, especially in work that is physically hazardous or morally, socially, or mentally harmful, involves a form of involuntary servitude, or interferes with a child's education. Subsequent to the passage of child labor laws, the definition also includes work by children who are younger than the minimum legal working age. Child labor was first recognized as a social problem with the introduction of the factory system in late 18th-century Great Britain. Children had formerly been apprenticed (see apprenticeship) or had worked in the family, but in the factory their employment soon constituted virtual slavery, especially among British orphans. This was mitigated by acts of Parliament in 1802 and later.

Similar legislation followed on the European Continent as countries became industrialized. Although most European nations had child labor laws by 1940, the material requirements necessary during World War II brought many children back into the labor market. Legislation concerning child labor in other than industrial pursuits, e.g., in agriculture, has lagged.

In the Eastern and Midwestern United States, child labor became a recognized problem after the Civil War, and in the South after 1910. Congressional child labor laws were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1918 and 1922. A constitutional amendment was passed in Congress in 1924 but was not approved by enough states. The First Labor Standards Act of 1938 set a minimum age limit of 18 for occupations designated hazardous, 16 for employment during school hours for companies engaged in interstate commerce, and 14 for employment outside school hours in nonmanufacturing companies. In 1941 The Supreme Court ruled that Congress had the constitutional authority to pass this act.

Nearly all member nations of the International Labor Organization (ILO) regulate the employment of children in industry, and most also regulate commercial work; some nations regulate work in the street trades, while a few control agricultural and household work. The 1973 ILO Minimum Age Convention, banning any form of child labor, has been ratified by 117 nations. In 1999, ILO members unanimously approved a treaty banning all hazardous child labor, that is, work that endangers the safety, health, or morals of children, but the treaty covered such universally objectionable forms of work as slavery, forced labor, child prostitution, criminal activity, and forced military recruitment and could be seen as a step backward from the 1973 treaty. The treaty was also criticized for permitting voluntary enlistment in the military by persons under the age of 18. Despite regulation attempts, an estimated 218 million children were engaged in economic activity in 2016, Not all such work is considered child labor, but some 152 million children (roughly 10% of the world's children) were estimated to be involved in child labor as defined under international agreements, with 73 million of those involved in hazardous labor.


See W. Trattner, Crusade for the Children (1970); also annual reports of the National Child Labor Committee.

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Child Labor


the wage labor of underaged persons, that is, those who are not old enough to be fully capable of work. In the period of the establishment of the capitalist mode of production, the use of the wage labor of children (starting from the age of five or six) became commonplace.

Speaking of the reasons for the appearance of child labor under capitalism, K. Marx wrote: “Insofar as machinery dispenses with muscular power, it becomes a means of employing laborers of slight muscular strength, and those whose bodily development is incomplete, but whose limbs are all the more supple. The labor of women and children was, therefore, the first thing sought for by capitalists who used machinery” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23, p. 406).

In the early stages of capitalist development, child labor was exploited under the same conditions as the labor of adult workers; this led to the physical and moral degradation of children and adolescents and to a high mortality rate among them. The problem of child labor became one of the most important social problems of capitalist society, and the curtailment of child labor became one of the demands of the working class. Legal curtailment of child labor first took place in Great Britain in 1833; a law was passed limiting the working day for children aged nine through 13 to eight hours and for adolescents aged 13 to 18, to 12 hours; nighttime labor was forbidden for children and adolescents of nine to 18.

Raising the minimum permissible age for children to work for wages is a working-class demand, as is the establishment of an age for obligatory education in school. In the majority of modern states, however, a low age for labor capability has been established—in 33 countries (1970) hiring children of 14 and older is permitted. The International Labor Organization convention No. 59 (1937), establishing 15 years as the minimum age for hiring children, had been ratified by only 22 countries (including the USSR) as of Jan. 1, 1970. Children of 12 years of age are hired in Iran, Turkey, Portugal, Thailand, Costa Rica, and Haiti. Nighttime child and adolescent labor is allowed in Japan, Australia, Iceland, Sweden, and the Republic of South Africa.

In most states of the USA, the working time for children under 16 is eight hours a day or 48 hours a week. By law in South Carolina and South Dakota, the working day for children can be ten hours long, and in Idaho it can be nine hours, or 54 hours a week. The problem of child labor in capitalist countries, in spite of laws improving the working conditions for children, is still one of the most acute social problems. In Marx’ opinion, the total abolition of child labor under capitalism is an empty pious wish.

In socialist countries, the concept of child labor does not exist. F. Engels wrote: “On the first day immediately following the seizure of political power, the working class must take more decisive measures for curbing female and child labor than the bill for the ten-hour or even eight-hour working day” (ibid., vol. 7, p. 242). One of the first decrees of Soviet power was that on the eight-hour day, which outlawed child labor and limited adolescent labor. These provisions were included in the RSFSR Labor Codes of 1918 and 1922. The labor legislation in force in the USSR and in other socialist countries sets a high age for beginning work. For instance, the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR of Dec. 13, 1956, forbids hiring people younger than 16, except that in exceptional cases 15-year-olds can be hired with the permission of the factory, plant, or local trade union committee.


Trud podrostkov na podzemnykh rabotakh, v shakhtakh i rudnikakh liubogo roda: Mezhdunarodnaia konferentsiia truda, Sessiia 49-ia, Doklad IV (2) [MOT]. Geneva, 1965.
Molodezh’ i trud: Mezhdunarodnoe biuro truda, Mezhdunarodnaia konferentsiia truda, Sessiia 44-ia, Doklad 1, ch. 1. Geneva, 1960.
Kiselev, I. Ia. Kapitalizm i rabochaia molodezh’. Moscow, 1964.
Working Children: A Report on Child Labor, 1969. Washington, D.C., 1970.
Children and Youth in Latin America, 1969. Santiago, 1969.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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