Child Labor

The purpose of this guide is to provide material to be used in classroom discussion and research projects about child labor in the United States and throughout the world. Teachers should read the brief article, “Stolen Dreams: Portraits of the World’s Working Children,” by physician-photographer David L. Parker appearing in Labor’s Heritage, Summer 1994. In conjunction with the article, the Labor’s Heritage poster, “Children without a Childhood,” provides illustrative material to incorporate into the classroom lesson.

The guide is divided into five sections:

  • Child Labor in the United States provides two contrasting contemporary examples of problems associated with child labor in the United States and an outline of the federal laws used to protect school-aged children. There are follow-up questions and further information on the subject.
  • Child Labor in Other Countries provides short examples of child labor abuses in other countries and a brief summary of international laws covering child labor. Information is also provided on the problem of enforcement of existing laws.
  • Child Labor: A Historical Perspective contrasts contemporary and eighty-year-old child labor photographs in order to give students a historical perspective on the topic.
  • Vocabulary and Geography provides a list of terms and places students should be able to identify.
  • Bibliography provides a list of resources for research on the topic.

Child Labor in the United States

January 1989. On the twelfth floor of a building at Thirty-ninth Street in the heart of the garment district in New York City, a fifteen-year-old boy “could be found by his table…sewing pleats into cheap white chiffon skirts. He hopes to make $1.00 an hour…. The temperature inside is eight degrees. Fluffy blue ear muffs frame his Mexican immigrant’s face, and he wears a thin jacket, slacks, scuffed loafers and a scared look. ‘I can’t lose my job,’ [he] pleads…to an inspector from the State department of labor. ‘We have no money.’” Source: Sweatshops in New York City: Local Examples of a Nationwide Problem, General Accounting Office Publication, GAO/HRD-89-101BR.

May 1993. A fourteen-year-old batboy for the Class A Savannah Cardinals baseball team was fired after the United States Department of Labor said that his employment violated child-labor laws which state that fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds must not work past seven p.m. on school nights or nine p.m. during the summer. In his review of the decision, Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich termed the application of child-labor laws to batboys “silly,” and stated that the department would not enforce any hourly violations in organized baseball pending a review of the law. Source: New York Times, May 28, 1993.

Have a class discussion that compares and contrasts these two examples. Why is one example termed “silly” by the Secretary of Labor? Reich said: “It is not the intent of the law to deny young teenagers employment opportunities so long as their health and well-being are not impaired.” Note: this is a job that has been traditionally held by teenage boys.

Should an enjoyable job with prestige have different requirements than an unsafe and dreary job? What if the unsafe and dreary job is needed to help support the child’s family? Can similar jobs have different requirements? Should the requirements for a teenager working on a farm owned by the child’s family differ from the requirements for a teenage migratory farm worker?

Have the class discuss the following topics covered by federal child labor regulations:

  • Minimum age.
  • Hours. (Different for school year and summer. Federal hours restrictions for fourteen- and fifteen-year-old workers: no work between the hours of seven p.m. and seven a.m. except nine p.m. from June 1 through Labor Day. Maximum hours of work: school days, three hours; non-school days, eight hours; school weeks, eighteen hours; non-school weeks, forty hours. Federal hours restrictions for sixteen- and seventeen-year-old workers: there are no federal restrictions on hours for sixteen- and seventeen-year-old working students. Restrictions [if any] vary from state to state. Contact your state department of labor for information. Note: most states follow the federal hours restrictions for employment of fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds.)
  • Night work. (Not allowed for the most part, but see batboy example.)
  • Street trade. (Newspaper vendors, shoeshine boys, etc.)
  • Meal period. (Many states require at least one-half hour for lunch.)
  • Hazardous occupations. (Health officials estimate that over 100,000 young workers are injured in the workplace every year. Workers under eighteen cannot drive a motor vehicle as an occupation or operate heavy machinery such as power-driven slicers or paper balers. Check with your state labor department for a list of other prohibited occupations for minors, as well as exceptions to federal government regulations in a particular industry, such as farming.)
  • School attendance. (Required.)

Why does the government restrict work hours during the school year? Consider the negative impact of too much work during the school year on the health, education, and well-being of minors. Students need to focus on attending and being alert in class, completing homework assignments, participating in extracurricular activities, and spending time with family and friends.

Should limits be placed on the age at which children should be allowed to work? How do we decide on these age limits? If limits are placed on the work done by children, who has the right to set these limits? The government? Parents? Companies? Schools?

Is there a minimum amount of education every child should have? Do parents have the right to tell their children they must work instead of going to school? Where should limits be placed on the rights of parents? Should child workers have the same rights as adult workers? Should child workers have more protection than adult workers? [TOP]

Child Labor in Other Countries

A loom owner, whose factory was located several hundred miles away, took Sarahu and other village children from their homes in the Palamau district in Bihar, India. The children were promised good food, living facilities and, after six months, when they had learned to weave, good wages. After some time had passed without any news from the children, one of the villagers traveled to the loom owner’s factory. He found that the children were made to work long hours, given poor food, and beaten. The youngsters were warned that unless they wanted to be beaten, they must tell anyone asking questions, especially the police, that the loom owner was their father. After learning of the situation, Sarahu’s mother went to find her son and, after much weeping and pleading, succeeded in bringing her child home with her. The loom owner paid no wages to Sarahu or his family for the time he had toiled in the factory. Source: Alan Whittaker, ed., A Pattern of Slavery: India’s Carpet Boys (London: Anti-Slavery International, 1988).

According to a study of subcontractors in the garment industry in the town of Angono, Philippines, over 1,000 children are employed in sewing, stitching, or packing baby dresses. The typical work week is seventy-seven hours of toil, from seven a.m. to seven p.m., seven days a week. The children receive an hour for lunch. Four- to six-year-olds may make five pesos (approximately twenty cents) per day. Eleven-year-olds can take home as much as ten pesos (approximately forty cents) per day. The legal minimum wage in the area is sixty-nine pesos (approximately three dollars) per day. Source: Testimony of Senator Tom Harkin before the Bureau of International Labor Affairs of the U.S. Department of Labor, April 12, 1994.

Using the information above and viewing the photographs in the poster “Children without a Childhood” and in the article “Stolen Dreams: Portraits of the World’s Working Children” in Labor’s Heritage, initiate a class discussion based on the following questions: How do conditions differ from those of working children in the U.S.? How are they the same? What can you do to alleviate these harsh conditions? Should you boycott products that are made by children? What will happen to the children who made these boycotted products? Is there a way you can look at products in your local store and decide if they are or are not made by children?

The minimum age for employment stipulated by the International Labor Organization is fifteen. The international standards permit children between the ages of thirteen and fifteen to do “light work.” Most countries have at least some minimum age at which children are permitted to work. Most countries also have a minimum level of compulsory education. In general, it is unusual for this to be less than twelve years of age. In Bangladesh and Iran, there is compulsory education only to the age of ten. Source: Child Labour: Law and Practice, Vol. 10. International Labour Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 1991.

The United States and Mexico have similar laws protecting workers. Both countries have laws and regulations restricting the work of children and both regulate essentially the same safety and health hazards. Enforcement strategies and responsibilities differ. The Mexican government’s approach to obtaining compliance places much more emphasis on negotiating workplace solutions and to identifying problems than on detecting violations and applying sanctions. For example, employers are given advance notice of inspections, and sanctions such as civil penalties or closing of the worksite are applied only when employers repeatedly refuse to correct problems. Source: Occupational Safety and Health and Child Labor Policies of the United States and Mexico, General Accounting Office Publication, GAO/T-HRD-91-22.

Why is enforcement so important in the area of child labor? Do you think there is less enforcement of the Mexican laws than of the United States laws? Why would advance notice of inspections not be helpful in combating child labor abuses?

Students interested in doing a research project could investigate the issues raised in the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). What problems in the workforce are caused by the large number of illegal immigrants living in this country? Where do we draw the poverty line in the United States and how does it impact on child labor? [TOP]

Child Labor: A Historical Perspective

Studying photographs for details can reveal much about a person, event, place, or historical period. Used critically, visual images often can be as important as original written documents or printed text in helping historians understand and write about the past.

How to analyze photographs:

  • Identify subject matter from the caption or information on the back of the photograph. Who are the people in the picture? What event is taking place? When and where was the picture taken?
  • When information is scant or missing, check for internal clues. Style of dress (particularly women’s clothing), furnishings, and automobiles are often keys that unlock information as to when the photograph was taken. Other less obvious but dependable details for pinpointing time and place can be the topography, street signs, billboards, posters, dates on a wall calendar, book titles, product names on food, etc.
  • Gather evidence from other sources. Look at other photographs by the same photographer. Search out other photographs containing similar actions or individuals. Consult old newspapers, maps, and landmarks for information about changes that might have occurred (e.g., if a building in a photograph was torn down on a certain date, the photograph was taken before that date). Seek out older individuals who may have personal knowledge of the person or event in a photograph.
  • Be aware that a photograph may distort reality. Remember that many scenes are posed rather than candid. A photograph may also be excessively selective in its subject matter and exclude something that causes the scene to be interpreted differently than if the material had been included. In the nineteenth century, because exposures required much more light than today’s automatic cameras, subjects were required to remain still for up to several minutes and so often appear unnaturally still and non-lifelike.

Classroom discussion and projects:

On the poster and in the Labor’s Heritage article, study the turn-of-the-century photographs of Lewis Hine and the contemporary photographs of David Parker. Think about the expression “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Within the context of that expression, analyze the photographs to determine what they reveal about children in the United States working at the turn of the century and children working today in countries such as Mexico, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

Market vendors, Indianapolis, Indiana, August 1908

Market vendor, Mexico City, Mexico, January 1992

  • How are the two workplaces similar? Look at the products they sell, the way the goods are displayed, and the overall condition of the workplace. The facial expressions and body postures of the boys in the two photographs are very different.
  • Describe the differences. Can you think of any possible reasons to account for the differences? Photographic technology improvements, and how the subject relates to the photographer can be considered factors. Items revealing the differences in time and place include: 1908 — suspenders and caps worn by vendors; basket the same as those being sold in the 1908 Cincinnati street vendor picture; 1908 vendors have a stiff, unnatural pose. 1992 — Spanish language on boxes and paperback book; 1992 vendor conveys a “streetwise” posture with a calculating look. For more information, read the captions of these photographs in Parker’s article in Labor’s Heritage.

Farm worker, Pemberton, New Jersey, September 1910

Brick worker, Kathmandu, Nepal, January 1993

  • How does the work environment in these two photographs compare? Consider the similarities and differences between outdoor farm work and outdoor factory work; both have heavy lifting and other strenuous physical labor. Both children are very young. For more information, read the captions of these photographs in Parker’s Labor’s Heritage article.
  • What are some of the dangers that a child might be exposed to at a construction site? Consider dangerous equipment; extreme noise; and falling bricks or other heavy objects.
  • What are some of the dangers involved in farm work? Consider pesticides, which are even more dangerous to small children than to adults; harsh climatic conditions, especially the hot sun; and the threat of insect and snake bites.
  • Many young children in the United States today still work on farms, either owned by their families, or as migrant workers. How has farm work changed over the years? How has it remained the same? Today there are fewer farms but many are large and highly mechanized. The tasks of migrant workers picking fruits and vegetables has for the most part has remained unchanged.

Street vendor, Cincinnati, Ohio, August 1908

Street vendor, Mexico City, Mexico, 1992

  • What is a street vendor? What products or services are considered street trade? These include shoeshines, newspapers, etc; highly portable products or equipment.
  • Has this type of child labor changed much in comparing 1908 to 1992? Compare these photographs with the market vendors of the same era. How are they similar? How are they different?
  • Additional information: the 1908 street vendor’s name is Marie Costa (probably from an immigrant family); the time is ten a.m. on a Saturday (not a school day); note the umbrella, which suggests she works long hours often in the rain or hot sun. Background details used in dating the photograph include the girl’s apparel, style of baskets being sold, streetcar rail tracks, brick paving stones, street lamp design. The 1992 street vendor (often with her mother) sells home-cooked chorizos (fried dough). The girl is ten years old and does not attend school; background details include the girl’s clothing, the automobile, the clothing and apparel of the pedestrians, including the briefcase, street pavement similar to the 1908 photograph (older part of the city), style of basket used to hold dough.

Have the class discuss the top reasons given in 1906 why children left school and joined the workforce (source: Edward N. Clopper, Child Labor in City Streets, New York: Macmillan Company, 1912):

  • Poverty
  • Tired of school
  • Because companions went to work
  • To get better clothes
  • Father’s laziness
  • Parents saving money [TOP]

Vocabulary and Geography

Students should know the definition or the location of the following:

  • Sweatshop
  • Homework
  • Work rules
  • Boycott
  • Sanctions
  • Bonded labor
  • Street trade
  • Topography
  • Third World
  • Nepal
  • Bangladesh
  • Mexico
  • India
  • GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade)
  • ILO (International Labor Organization)
  • NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) [TOP]


Angevine, Erma. History of the National Consumers League, 1899-1979. Washington, DC: National Consumers League, 1979.

Brooks, William C. “How To Stop Child Labor Law Abusers.” USA Today, March 1991, pp. 38-40.

Cahn, Rhode and William Cahn. No Time for School, No Time for Play: The Story of Child Labor in America. New York, NY: Julian Messner, 1972.

Cole, Paul F. Children at Work: Peril or Promise? New York, NY: New York State AFL-CIO, 1991.

Dumaine, Brian and Rahul Jacob. “Illegal Child Labor Comes Back.” Fortune, April 5, 1993, pp. 86-95.

Gibbs, Nancy. “Suffer The Little Children.” Time, March 26, 1990, p. 18.

Holland, Ruth. Mill Child. New York, NY: Macmillan Company, 1970.

Kemp, John R. Lewis Hine: Photographs of Child Labor in the New South. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1986.

Kilborn, Peter T. “Playing Games with Labor Laws: When Work Fills a Child’s Hours.” New York Times, December 10, 1989, p. 1.

National Education Association. Students Who Work: What Parents Need to Know, 1991.

Sawyer, Roger. Children Enslaved. New York, NY: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc., 1986.

Stein, Leon. Out of the Sweatshop: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy. New York, NY: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1977.

Trattner, Walter I. Crusade for the Children: A History of the National Child Labor Committee and Child Labor Reform in America. Chicago, IL: Quadrangle Books, 1970.

United States General Accounting Office: Human Resources Division. Child Labor: Increases in Detected Child Labor Violations Throughout the United States. Report to the Honorable Don J. Pease, House of Representatives, April 1990.

Waldman, Steven and Karen Springen. “Too Old, Too Fast?” Newsweek, November 16, 1992, pp. 80-88. [TOP]

NOTE: This guide is to be used in conjunction with David L. Parker’s “Stolen Dreams: Portraits of the World’s Working Children,” in the Summer 1994, Vol. VI, No. 1 issue of Labor’s Heritage and the Labor’s Heritage‘s poster, “Children without a Childhood.” The editors of Labor’s Heritage wish to thank the Child Labor Coalition, c/o the National Consumers League, Washington, D.C., for supplying bibliographical and other information used in this guide.