The history of child labor in America is long and, in some cases, unsavory. It dates back to the founding of the United States. Traditionally, most children, except for the privileged few, had always worked - either for their parents or for an outside employer. Through the years, child labor practices have changed - and so have the benefits and risks associated with employment of children. In some respects, altered workplace technology has served to make work easier and less hazardous. At the same time, some processes and equipment have rendered the workplace more dangerous - especially for the very young.
Child labor first became a federal legislative issue at least as far back as 1906 with the introduction of the Beveridge proposal for regulation of the types of work in which children might be engaged. Although the 1906 legislation was not adopted, it led to extended study of the conditions under which children were employed or allowed to work and to a series of legislative proposals - some approved, others defeated or overturned by the courts - culminating in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938. The latter statute, amended periodically, remains the primary federal law dealing with the employment of children.
Although providing a framework for regulation of child labor (and, in some cases, forbidding it entirely), the FLSA is not comprehensive, nor does it deal with all employment of children in precisely the same way. Generally speaking, work by young persons (under 18 years of age) in mines and factories is not allowed. What other types of work may be suitable (or especially hazardous) for persons under 18 years of age has been left to the discretion of the Secretary of Labor. Some types of work - for example, some newspaper sales and delivery, theatrical (and related) employment - fall beyond the scope of FLSA child labor requirements. Finally, a distinction has been made between employment in non-agricultural fields and in agriculture - and, in the latter case, between work for a parent or guardian in an agricultural setting and commercial employment.
This book sketches the early history of child labor regulation and reviews certain recent federal initiatives in that area and discusses child labor legislation.