Saturday, April 7, 2012

child labor throughout history

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Child labor, though not as evident as it used to be, is still around today. The “children” may be older with a little more education, but they are still a vital component of today’s workforce. Although there have been many changes since the early nineteenth century such as the Fair Labor Standards Act and compulsory education laws, child labor is still lurking around America.

Children in the early nineteenth century had to work in order to help support their families. They would work about seventy two hours a week with little breaks. Children were always tired and hungry and working conditions were very dangerous. Many boys first worked as “breaker boys” until they were old enough to work in the mines. They would work above the ground pulling rocks and slate from coal cars as they rushed by. In order to accomplish this task these boys would sit on boards that hung over the coal chutes. Some of these children often fell or were hit by rushing carts. These children knew that their family depended on their income, and did not question their duty. Child laborers could not attend school and rarely knew how to read or write.

Children were also attractive to employers because there were always lots of them. The employers could pay lower wages and force the children to work long hours. A child’s size was also valuable to an employer because adults couldn’t fit into the cramped mineshafts, or were quick enough to run through the moving parts of spinning or weaving machines. Children often developed diseases because they were constantly breathing in dust from the coal mines and inhaling cotton fluff from the textiles.

It wasn‘t until the late nineteenth century that reformers began working to raise awareness about the dangers of child labor and establish laws regulating the practice. Organizations, such as the National Child Labor Committee, were started. This organization was launched in 104 by social workers. Another group that helped the children were journalists. Journalists, who were called “muckrakers”, gained public support by writing about all the horrible conditions in workplaces. In 116, when the progressive movement was beginning to sweep over America, President Wilson passed the Keating-Owen Act through Congress. With this act, articles that were produced by children were banned from interstate commerce. A couple of years later a Supreme Court ruling declared this act unconstitutional. It wasn’t until 18 when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed that children were freed from dangerous work. With this act, children still worked, but their hours were regulated and the deplorable conditions in which they had worked improved slightly.

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Today, the FLSA (Fair labor Standards Act of 18) is still in use. Every employer must apply the FLSA and also follow their states individual child labor laws. In Florida, minors sixteen and seventeen may not work more than thirty hours a week. They may not work before 60 a.m. or later than 11 p. m. and for no more than eight hours a day. Minors are also supposed to get a thirty minute break after working four consecutive hours. Under Florida law, if an employer violates the rules, they can be fined $,500 per offense, per day, and/or receive a criminal conviction as a second degree misdemeanor. Under federal law, an employer may receive a maximum fine of $10,000.

Even though there are such laws, employers today still do not adhere to these regulations. I have worked since the age of fifteen and unfortunately, I worker for employers that did not follow child labor laws. When I was a senior in high school with less demanding classes, I would work much more than thirty hours a week at the age of seventeen. I did not receive a break ever and in some cases, I would borrow the proprietors car and run errands for his restaurant. This wasn’t just a family owned restaurant but a major national chain restaurant. What was totally ironic was that they had copies of Florida’s child labor laws all over the restaurant and nobody seemed to care. One restaurant that is being assessed for violating child labor laws is a Steak ‘N Shake in southwestern Ohio. An investigation by the Department’s Wage and Hour Division showed that Steak N Shake employed 7 minors, ages 1 through 15, in violation of the child labor provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The minors worked more than 8 hours a day and much later in the evening than permitted by regulations and they even had a 1 year old boy working the deep fryers.

For my primary research, I decided to survey fifty of my fellow college students to see if they had ever worked for an employer that disobeyed the law. To my surprise, I found out that 68% of students who worked when they were seventeen, never received a thirty minute break after working four consecutive hours. Most people didn’t even know about Florida’s child labor laws. I also discovered that when students first started working their grades dropped and they became less socially involved.

The workforce of today still depends on child labor. The “children” are older, more mobile, and working for a variety of reasons. The laws have helped slightly and we no longer see very young children working in dangerous jobs. What we do see are many older adolescents working for long hours, for minimum wages, and sometimes in dangerous conditions. The teenagers are not going to be the ones to complain. The money earned is being saved for college, making car payments, paying insurance, helping their parents pay bills, etc. The teenagers need those jobs.

It is up to the government to ensure that employers follow the laws. It is not enough to print them and put them into books that sit on shelves. Adults must be vigilant and report violations that involve minors. Employers that are in violation should be punished and the infraction remedied. For only then, can we, as Americans, be ensured of the safety of our children.

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