A Socialist Labor Party Statement—

Child Labor Still America’s Shame

The many social evils and economic contradictions that capitalism engenders are for the most part insoluble and endless. No matter what reform efforts are made to mitigate the impact of those evils and contradictions, they continue to plague society in varying degrees. Some of those problems may at times and on the surface even appear to have been mitigated only to have them flare up again. The vicious and unconscionable exploitation of child labor provides a case in point.

Although child labor existed in varying degrees in many enterprises in different parts of the world during the 17th century and earlier, it did not really receive recognition as a social evil until the factory system was introduced in England in the late 18th century. There, in a relatively short time, child labor became a major factor in production, particularly—but not exclusively—in the cotton mills.

Children as young as six were widely employed and were subjected to merciless exploitation under working conditions that amounted to virtual slavery in its most oppressive forms. They were not only worked to exhaustion, they were beaten, ill-fed and paid a pittance. Many were driven to early alcoholism and other degradations, and in not insignificant numbers even driven to early death. As Frederick Engels noted in his work, The Condition of the Working Class in England:

“The great mortality among children of the working class, and especially among those of the factory operatives, is proof enough of the unwholesome conditions under which they pass their first years.”

Throughout that work Engels paints a vivid picture of those unwholesome conditions, as does Karl Marx in Capital, in the section dealing with “The Working Day.”

There were, of course, some who declaimed against the evils of child labor, and from time to time laws were enacted ostensibly to mitigate the problem, but to little avail. As Marx noted in Capital: “Parliament passed five Labor Laws between 1802 and 1833, but was shrewd enough not to vote a penny for their carrying out, for their requisite officials, etc.”

Here in the United States, child labor was introduced on a major scale in cotton mills by Samuel Slater, who came to this country from England in 1790. As Mitchell Wilson noted in his excellent and interesting work, American Science and Invention, Slater drew “on his English training” and “staffed his factory with children from four to ten years old.” However, compared to the working conditions imposed on children in England, the working conditions in Slater’s factory were relatively benign, though the hours were long, the pay low and the exploitation intense. However, at a time when children in America generally were given chores on the family farm practically as soon as they could walk, Slater’s child-labor practices elicited little objection. In fact, it was not until Slater established the American Sunday School for his child employees that people became offended, charging that he was profaning the Sabbath.

One of the early proponents of the “virtues” of child labor was Alexander Hamilton, who on one occasion declared that “women and children are rendered more useful, and the latter more early useful, by manufacturing establishments, than they otherwise would be.”

However, it was in the post-Civil War period that child labor became a factor in American industry and was recognized as a growing social problem. By 1900, according to Roger Butterfield in his history, The American Past, there were over 1,752,000 children under the age of 16 employed in American industry. One-fourth of the “hands” in southern cotton mills were children, 20,000 of whom were under the age of 12. And there were some girls six and seven years old who worked 13 hours a day.

There were growing demands for measures to regulate child labor. Politicians included promises in their campaign platforms to do something about it. Finally, in 1918, and again in 1922, Congress enacted laws intended to set up minimum age standards and regulate working conditions. These were not intended to eliminate child labor but to mitigate its most terrible aspects under which the health and education of those children employed in industry were not merely undermined but often destroyed. On both occasions the U.S. Supreme Court declared those laws unconstitutional.

In 1924 Congress acted again in response to growing demands that something be done about child labor. This time it passed a constitutional amendment to regulate it. But the proposed amendment failed to receive the approval of enough states to become part of the U.S. Constitution.

In 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed. It set specific requirements with which employers were to comply—i.e., a minimum age limit of 16 for children employed in the production of commodities for interstate or foreign commerce, the employment of 14- and 15-year-olds in occupations other than mining and manufacturing only if such employment did not interfere with their education or threaten their health, etc. In 1941 the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled that the act was constitutional.

Since then, there have been a host of state and local laws generally intended to minimize and regulate the employment of children in industries, commercial enterprises, street trades, agriculture, household work and various aspects of the public amusement trades. Despite all that, child labor and many of its evil aspects have not only remained a part of the American industrial scene, they are enjoying a resurgence. Fortune magazine noted that in a fairly lengthy article in its issue of April 5, 1993. Written by one of its associate editors, the article is entitled “Illegal Child Labor Comes Back.” And it presents ample convincing evidence to justify the headline.

Among other things, it cites instances of children being “exploited,” “exposed to danger,” subjected to working long hours, paid less than the minimum wage and otherwise being abused in sweatshops, on farms, in fast-food outlets and in such new scam operations as door-to-door candy selling that sends young children out “late at night, unsupervised and in strange neighborhoods.”

All in all, the Fortune article paints a sordid picture of children across the country being victimized by unscrupulous employers who violate existing child labor laws with impunity. In 1992 the U.S. Department of Labor recorded 19,443 such violations, “about twice the 1980 level.” Moreover, there is little reason to doubt that for every such recorded violation, there are many more that go unrecorded or are simply overlooked. As the article notes, “Child labor laws...are rarely enforced.” That squares with the historic record, and there is every reason to expect that such will continue to be the case.

No social problem can be eliminated unless its cause is uprooted. That fact alone guarantees that child labor and its abhorrent consequences will remain as long as capitalism—its cause—remains. As Daniel De Leon succinctly put it in an editorial he wrote on the subject 90 years ago:

“Capitalist conditions, created and maintained by the capitalist class, cause and promote child labor....We also have the evidence to enforce the oft-made Socialist contention that child labor will not be abolished as long as capitalism prevails....Socialism alone is the remedy for child labor.”


Socialist Labor Party of America, P.O. Box 218, Mountain View, CA 94042-0218 • www.slp.org • socialists@slp.org

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