Child labor holds an ignominious place in the history of U.S. industrialization. Children embodied the preferred source of labor for many industrialists in the 19th century, given that factory owners believed them to be “more manageable, cheaper, and less likely to strike” (“Child Labor in U.S. History.” n.p.).
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Improvements to labor laws and an intensified focus on the human rights issue that child labor represents in more recent years have diminished the prevalence of child labor somewhat. However, the issue of modern day sweatshops, both foreign and domestic, which often employ children still lingers. This paper details the history of child labor sweatshops in the U.S., touches on their existence in the present, and explores some ideas of how to reduce their number in the future.
Industrialization in the 19th century triggered the displacement of farm and rural families into the urban environment looking for livelihoods. What they found instead were exploitative labor practices, including the use of children in various industries, such as “mines, glass factories, textiles, agriculture, canneries, home industries, and as newsboys, messengers, bootblacks, and peddlers” (“Child Labor in U.S. History.” n.p.).
Long hours, low wages, and dangerous working conditions were commonplace, and although some political will to confront the plight of exploited children existed at the time, the “states varied considerably in whether they had child labor standards and in their content and degree of enforcement” (“Child Labor in U.S. History.” n.p.). As a result, “growing opposition to child labor in the North caused many factories to move to the South” (“Child Labor in U.S. History.” n.p.).
The tide began to turn in the early 20th century, thanks to the pioneering efforts of working people and labor unions:
Child labor began to decline as the labor and reform movements grew and labor standards in general began improving, increasing the political power of working people and other social reformers to demand legislation regulating child labor. Union organizing and child labor reform were often intertwined, and common initiatives were conducted by organizations led by working women and middle class consumers, such as state Consumers’ Leagues and Working Women’s Societies. (“Child Labor in U.S. History.” n.p.).
Two organizations spearheaded child labor reform in the early 20th century: the National Consumers’ League, founded in 1899, and the National Child Labor Committee, founded in 1904 (“Child Labor in U.S. History.” n.p.). Both groups possessed “shared goals of challenging child labor, including through anti-sweatshop campaigns and labeling programs” (“Child Labor in U.S. History.” n.p.).
The National Child Labor Committee’s “work to end child labor was combined with efforts to provide free, compulsory education for all children…[which]…culminated in the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, [and] set federal standards for child labor (“Child Labor in U.S. History.” n.p.).
Reform, however, came slowly, and was bitterly opposed by factory owners, whose political influence far outstripped that of the working people at that time. 1916 marked the first year that the government enacted a federal law to sanction state violators (“Child Labor in U.S. History.” n.p.).
This first child labor law prohibited “the movement of goods across state lines if minimum age laws…[were] violated” (“Child Labor in U.S. History.” n.p.). Unfortunately, the law was “in effect only until 1918, when it…[was] declared unconstitutional, then revised, passed, and declared unconstitutional again” (“Child Labor in U.S. History.” n.p.).
Discrepancy between the states also brought about the downfall of the first effort of regulate child labor in 1924, wherein “the attempt to gain federal regulation fail[ed]. Congress passé[d] a constitutional amendment giving the federal government authority to regulate child labor, but too few states ratifi[ed] it and it never…[took] effect” (“Child Labor in U.S. History.” n.p.).
In 1937, the second attempt “to ratify constitutional amendment giving federal government authority to regulate child labor…[fell] just short of getting necessary votes” in order to pass into law (“Child Labor in U.S. History.” n.p.). It was not until 1938, over a hundred years since the first stirrings of child labor regulation, that “the minimum ages of employment and hours of work for children…[became] regulated by federal law under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“Child Labor in U.S. History.” n.p.).
In more recent times, child labor has become more of an international phenomenon through globalization. Corporations based in the U.S. are of course bound by American child labor laws; however, the subcontractors they hire in other countries, where most manufacturing happens, are not.
In the eternal quest to keep costs low and financial returns high, major U.S. corporations found themselves once again endorsing and profiting from child labor. In her book Sweatshop: The History of an American Idea, author Laura Hapke details the public relations nightmare that struck the Nike corporation upon the discovery by consumer activist Mark Kasky that their foreign contractors employed children:
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Kasky had brought a suit against the sneaker giant…arguing that the company misled the public by denying that its shoes were made under sweatshop conditions at factories in China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. The suit further contended that the public relations efforts were commercial speech and thus not entitled to First Amendment protections. In response, Nike [claimed that its’]…statements on and off the web that there were no sweatshops concerned labor practices, not products, and should be protected political speech (Hapke 139).
The ingenuity and creativity displayed by Nike’s legal team in this case gives us some insight into the type of money Nike stood to lose by moving its manufacturing arm out of countries where child labor laws either languish, or remain non-existent. Indeed, Hapke points to the fact that in 2002 Nike “fearful of Indonesia’s union movement, shut factories and cut back production with a plan to move on to underdeveloped sites in China and Vietnam where workers rights [were]…no so hotly contested (Hapke 143).
Another issue tied in with unfair and exploitative child labor practices exists in the counterfeit merchandise trade. In his book Knockoff: The Deadly Trade in Counterfeit Goods: The True Story of the World’s Fastest Growing Crime Wave, author Tim Phillips details the big business of fakes. Counterfeiters often employ children in large organizations known as “counterfeit gangs,” essentially “criminal networks [that] work across borders and use children from low income families as vendors.
Phillips points to a case in Spain wherein “Spanish police arrested 37 people and seized 28,000 knock off CDs as part of a crackdown on a Europe wide counterfeiting ring. 12 were from Pakistan, 15 from Bangladesh, one was Chinese and seven were children from Pakistan and Bangladesh (Phillips 73).
Phillips book highlights the insidious nature of child labor, especially in developing nations. Child labor weaves itself fully into the economic systems of many countries, in both the shadow economy and the above ground economy, so much so that regulation becomes nearly impossible. Phillips give the example of the “ghost shift,” a labor practice wherein counterfeiters add an unofficial extra shift to a factory schedule, often manned by children (Phillips 27).
Phillips explains: “instead of two eight hour shifts, the factory runs for 24 hours, with an unofficial extra shift using cheap materials, unofficial labor, and safety shortcuts (Phillips 27). In these situations, addressing the issue of child labor becomes difficult not only to prove, but to find in the first place.
In Phillips’ words, the “staff of the ghost shift was never legally there – you can’t change their working conditions or wages or ensure that children aren’t employed, because Nike or Microsoft or Gillette or The Gap don’t know the ghosts exist” (Phillips 27). Legislators and U.S. companies remain hamstrung by the fact that counterfeiters need not play by any rules that don’t suit their bottom line. As a result, we have “children in China making knock off bags” (Phillips 52).
Distressingly, recent news describes cases of child labor violations that occur on home soil. The New York Times featured a story in 2008 wherein state legislators discovered under age workers employed at the U.S.’s largest kosher meat plant, Agriprocessors, at their factory located in Iowa.
According to the report, the seven-month investigation uncovered “egregious violations of virtually every aspect of Iowa’s child labor laws” (Preston A15). Some of these included “employing minors in prohibited occupations, exposing them to hazardous chemicals, and making them work with prohibited tools like knives and saws” (Preston A15).
The Agriprocessors case brings up another dark element of child labor – exploitation of illegal workers. In the Iowa plant, most of the under age workers were “illegal immigrants from Guatemala,” some “as young as 13” (Preston A15). In a series of candid interviews with the young workers, officials discovered that they “were forced to work long hours on night shifts, sometimes up to 17 hours a day, and were not paid all of their overtime.
They said they were put to work on racing production lines using knives to cut meat and poultry with little or no safety training” (Preston A15). Under age illegal immigrants typically present falsified I.D. to potential employers, however, “Iowa law requires employers to make an extra effort to determine the date of birth of workers who could be minors, including asking for a birth certificate or other official proof of age, labor officials said” (Preston A15).
The invisibility of these children in the U.S. makes them prime targets for unscrupulous employers looking to maximize the amount of labor with the absolute minimum outlay of wages.
What does the future hold for child labor practices in the U.S. and abroad? Is the situation improving, or growing steadily worse? In his article Working to End Sweatshops, author Andrew Korfhage tells the story of “two worker-owners from Maquiladora Mujeres, a Nicaraguan women’s sewing cooperative, [who] embarked on an anti-sweatshop speaking tour of the United States” (Korfhage n.p.) The women began in Washington, DC, where they spoke at the Co-op America’s Green Festival, then moved on to Minneapolis.
North Country Fair Trade, a distributor of sweatshop-free clothing and accessories, sponsored the Minneapolis leg. In Korfhage’s words, “the two women told audiences about how they had escaped the unhealthy and abusive working conditions of bigger local factories by forming their cooperative and forging alliances with companies like North Country that are dedicated to keeping sweatshops out of supply chains” (Korfhage n.p.).
North Country Fair Trade seeks to bring fair trade and clothing together. Fair trade counters child labor abuses by “guaranteeing a level of financial support for each link of the supply chain, sufficient for workers and farmers to not only meet their basic needs, but also to improve their communities, develop their businesses, and lift themselves economically” (Korfhage n.p.).
According to the founder John Flory, “people think of Fair Trade as mainly coffee or crafts,” yet, in Flory’s mind, “there’s a very big commercial market for other Fair Trade items like clothing. North Country’s role is to help develop producers of Fair Trade goods and then help them find a market for their products” (Korfhage n.p.).
In child labor practices, the weakest and most vulnerable members of society serve the end of profit. Clearly, children still personify the most readily available, the cheapest, and most easily manipulated form of labor. In that regard, little has changed since the 19th century.
However, the dedicated efforts of entrepreneurs like Flory offer hope to exploited children from low income backgrounds all over the world. Improvements to child labor laws need to be strengthened with the political will to address the human rights issue that child labor represents, and these improvements can definitely begin in our own back yard. Modern day sweatshops, largely staffed by minors, need to recede into the past once and for all.
“Child Labor in U.S. History.” Child Labor Public Education Project. University of Iowa Labor Center. Web.
Hapke, L. Sweatshop: The History of an American Idea. Piscataway, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2004. Print.
Korfhage, A. “Working to End Sweatshops: North Country Fair Trade.” Comité Fronterizo de [email protected] CFO. 2006 ed. n.p. Web.
Phillips, T. Knockoff: The Deadly Trade in Counterfeit Goods: The True Story of the World’s Fastest Growing Crime Wave. London: Kogan Page Publishers, 2007. Print.
Preston, J. “Inquiry Finds Under-Age Workers at Meat Plant.” New York Times. 2008. Web.