Laws on child labor in the industrial revolution

Written by sophia cross
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Laws on child labor in the industrial revolution
Child labour still exists today in several countries despite laws against it. (niño nepalí image by Diorgi from Fotolia.com)

The beginning of the Industrial Revolution created profound changes in the world. New inventions for agriculture, mining and transport spawned a growing need for cheap labour. For more than a hundred years, orphans and poor children often performed agricultural and manufacturing labour. As the era ended, lawmakers began creating laws protecting them from exploitation.

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The First Wave: England

Between the years of 1750 and 1802, no laws existed to protect children from harsh labour conditions. Children as young as five years old worked in factories and mills. According to "Sparticus Educational," the city of Leeds, England reported a 44 per cent death rate of workers under five years old between the years 1780 and 1782. In 1833, the city of Lancashire reported a total of 401 workers under the age of 11 and 2,292 child laborors between the ages of 11 and 16. The children often worked 12 to 14 hour shifts with little time to eat.

The Second Wave: Advocacy

In the late 1700s an attitude shift began toward limiting the hours that children could work. One of the first advocates of child workers was Richard Oastler, the son of a merchant. He believed that the ruling class should take care of the weak and vulnerable. In 1789, he met with John Wood, a worsted manfacturing owner who was concerned about the children he employed. Wood had a reputation of caring for his labourers. He feared if he reduced their hours, his wool would become more expensive than his competitors' wool. Thus, he and Oastler worked to get the first of the Factory Acts passed in 1802.

The Factory Acts

The Factory Act of 1802 was the first law protecting child labourers. It limited how long a child could work, declared work rooms must be ventilated and lime-washed, and required owners to provide children with clothes. The Factory Act of 1833 established a normal day for children. Labourers between the ages of nine and 13 could not work more than nine hours per day, and those between the ages of 13 and 18 could work no more than 12 hours per day. The law also mandated 90 minutes for meals throughout the work day.

In 1844, Oastler and several other advocates, such as John Doherty, got the Factory Act of 1844 passed. This law further reduced the number of hours to six-and-a-half for children aged eight through 13. The law required certificates of age and mandated that employers report accidents or deaths.

United States

The United States was slower to adopt uniform laws regulating child labour. In 1832, New England unions criticised child labour, stating that prolonged work in factories with few breaks impeded children's development. In 1836, Massachusetts passed the first law in the states, which required child labourers to attend school at least three months a year. In 1842, Massachusetts passed a law limiting work hours. Other states followed, but enforcement was inconsistent. According to a study by George Mason Univeristy, 19 per cent of children between the ages of 10 and 15 were employed by 1890.

In 1909, photographer Lewis Hine photographed children in harsh conditions, attempting to convince lawmakers and the general public to accept reform. In 1916, the Keating-Owen Act limited the employment of children, but the Supreme Court struck it down in 1918 and again in 1922. It wasn't until 1938 that President Franklin Roosevelt gave full protection to children with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

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