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Child Labor: A Heartbreaking Reality

The United Nations’ International Labor Organization has defined the crisis of child labor as “work that deprives children of their childhood.” Child labor circumstances where children are starved of education and universally conventional human rights.

The primary thought a common educated American has of a young child working a job is that it is nonsensical. Children are expected to squander their time enjoying their youth while getting an ample education to prepare them for their inevitable entrance into the workforce.

The United States was not always opposed to child labor. Popular opinion over the legal right for children to work was a foremost subject in the early 20th century. Business owners at the time saw child labor as a necessary component of a growing economy, favoring their “manageable” nature,  lower wages, and assuming that they were “less likely” to strike. They were employed in “mines, glass factories, textiles, agriculture.” Internal strife, growing labor-union movements, and the escalating “political power” of the general American workforce pushed child labor out of favor. On October 24, 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, effectively ending the child-labor debate in the United States.

Was the outside world making effective changes as well? Some did, while others ignored the alteration of the status quo.

Children are still involved in the global workforce at endemic proportion.

132 million children work in the agricultural sector, which accounts for 70 percent of adolescent employment.

Sub-Saharan Africa hosts a majority of these children. The remaining children are located in Asia, and South & Central America. The impression made on many people is that child-labor in the Third-World is in large “sweatshops”, but that has proven not to be the case. Most child labor is based around an “informal economy,” which is based around self-sufficient selling of goods or “laboring long hours on family farms.”

The lack of adequate regulation for child workers allows the exploitation of children in many third world nations. Several of these nations have laws and “accept international treaties” outlawing these practices, but the implementation of these laws on a global scale has been a tremendous failure.

Countless adolescents work from “sun up to sun down” tending to farms, from personal familial subsistence farming to large farming businesses.

Even in modern times, the U.S. agriculture sector is plagued by the use of child labor. The Fair Labor Standards Act included an “exception” for agricultural work which allows “children as young as 12” to work within the industry. Proponents argue many of these workers are involved in family-run businesses.

This argument was a major piece in what allowed the exception in the 1930’s, a nation still reeling from economic collapse and families who needed all the assistance they could to survive. Detractors argued “hazardous occupations” are better administered in other types of work.

Others stated the rule puts children in dangerous conditions on large corporate based farming operations. Zama Coursen-Neff drew a comparison to children working at global conglomerate McDonald’s. Once children react the legal work-age, they can work behind a cash register, but are barred from more dangerous work-activities such as using “the fryer.”

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health proposed a list of hazardous occupations within the agricultural sector that are commonly allowed, such as “working outdoors in dangerously hot weather” and “driving large farm vehicles.”

Agricultural lobbyists suppressed the proposal in 2011.

Child labor has morphed over the years, but the constant existence of the culture is a troubling sign of the future. Strides have been made to exact a change, but the realities of the situation is dire for the lives of children everywhere.

– Joseph Abay