Child labor in the United States has long been a subject of concern. The U.S. enacted strict child labor statutes in 1938 (Labor, 2009), and has continued to enforce that law. However, there remain problems at home in the U.S. And abroad. The United States seeks to enforce the law, but there are times when it is difficult to catch perpetrators of violations. However, the U.S. has trade restrictions against countries that do not have strict enforcement of international standards. This research examines statutes in the United States (including their historic antecedents), what is being done to violators, and how trade is affected by citizen outcry against human rights violators and compliance with international law.
Current thinking on human rights dictates that children reach a certain age before they are to be put into the workforce. However, different cultures have different ideas about what constitutes child labor. Even within the United States, there are cultural divides on what constitutes child labor. The purpose of this research examination is to determine what different terms mean in different areas of the world, and whether that should have bearing on how national and international child labor laws are enforced through trade restrictions or punitive action of other types.
What is the history of child labor law in the United States and does child labor remain a concern?
How does United States insistence on compliance with international child labor statutes affect trade with certain countries?
United States law is very clear about what is regarded as child labor and what is not. A child is considered to be anyone under the age of eighteen. Thus, labor restrictions exist for any individual who is working while under that age. The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed by Congress in 1938 to give guidelines regarding how long and at what jobs a child may work from birth to the age of 17. In part, the law states:
Minors younger than 14 may not be employed, with the exception of those employed by a parent who is a sole proprietor of the business, those employed in agriculture, or those employed as actors or newspaper carriers.
Children aged 14-15 may work outside school hours in nonhazardous jobs as defined by FLSA. During holiday and other school breaks, between 7:00 A.M.-7:00 P.M. (9:00 P.M. June 1-Labor Day), children may work eight hours per day, 40 hours per week.
While school is in session, children aged 14-15 may work up to 18 hours per week but no more than three hours on school days and eight hours on non-school days.
16- and 17-year-old minors are exempt from the hours per day limitations but are still prohibited from hazardous work (Donald, Ralston & Merker, 2002).
These are the federal guidelines that all U.S. citizens must adhere to, but states also have the option of increasing the fortitude of the law.
However, this law simply states what labor a child can do, it does not list the punishment incurred if someone willfully violates the law. The fact is that there are many different situations that can arise, and the different states determine how these laws will be interpreted and punished within their jurisdiction. The Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor (Labor, 2010) enforces the U.S. law regarding child labor. Different levels of enforcement exist depending on the severity of the crime that has been committed. "Employers may be subject to a civil money penalty of up to $11,000 for each employee who is subject to a child labor violation" (Labor, 2010). Of course, this penalty can be increased to a $50,000 penalty is the labor causes the death or serious injury of a child. The Department of Labor can also stop "interstate commerce of goods" that have been produced using unlawful child labor (Labor, 2010). Besides these civil penalties, an individual can be fined or imprisoned for willful criminal child labor infractions. The fine is $10,000 per infraction and carries the possibility of a six-month prison sentence also (Labor, 2010). These are the United States federal laws as they are enforced, but, as mentioned previously, the individual states can interpret the law for their jurisdiction as long as they do not lessen the impact of the law (Fitzpatrick, 2006).
The law in the United States and the international law are very similar. International child labor law though is more of a suggestion than an enforceable set of laws. The reason for this is that there is no international enforcement body that can positively act whenever one of these laws has been broken. Cultural difference make it difficult to impose an international set of laws that can be observed in every individual situation. One of the issues is that the view of both what a child is and what labor is differ according to location. Therefore, it is necessary to determine a definition of both terms independently.
The first term to examine is child. In some parts of the world children as young as two are working for a small wage in village factories. The international definition of the word "child" was set by the International Labor Organization (ILO). In general, they have set the age of fifteen as a general international guideline as to when an individual can begin to work. However,
"This is not: a fixed age: the ILO Minimum Age Convention contains "flexibility clauses" which authorize the employment of children in "light work" from the age of thirteen and which have lower age limits for developing countries (fourteen years generally, twelve years for light work" (Cox, 1999).
This age determination is set as the international floor for when a person can begin to work for a wage, but the accepted age in most of the first-world countries is either 17 or 18.
The second term that causes problems is labor. Even in the United States, which may have the strictest restrictions in the industrialized world, children are allowed to labor at very young ages if the work is not deemed to be too strenuous. Babies earn wages while doing television commercials all of the time. From the earliest colonial period of American life, people have had their sons and daughters do very strenuous farm labor from a very young age (Browne, Frondorf, Harrison-Spoerl & Krishnan, 2004). If the labor is too restrictive it can still be prosecuted, but, for the most part, if the labor is done for agricultural purposes or in a family business, it is protected (Bullard, 2001). Besides these types of family work that do not come under a definition of child labor, Cox (1999) says, "Some practices can be easily identified as labor; mine and factory work are obvious examples. Other practices, however, are harder to define, and the process of drawing a line between work that is acceptable and work that is not is a tricky one." However, some have tried to define the concept so that it can be understood. In the United Nations (1990) document entitled "Convention on the Rights of a Child" labor is that which is "likely to be hazardous, or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development." This is the accepted definition as it applies to children only.
Thus, it is possible to see that the law can lead to the enfranchisement of the child. The Merriam-Webster dictionary (2012) defines enfranchisement as "to set free (as from slavery)." The goal of the ILO and other such organizations is to guarantee that all children have the ability to live this reality. Child labor takes a person's childhood from them and is an exploitative practice that generally lessens the lifespan of the one so exploited (Gunn & Ostos, 1992). The law that has been enforced by member nations against those who would use child labor has had a positive effect on the children of some developing nations.
Ellenbogen (2004) conducted a study to see if child labor practices could be effectively stopped if the government of Cote d'Ivoire was subjected to tariff restrictions. The author found the children were taken out of the labor force in the industries that were being penalized, but that certain industries such as picking cocoa beans were not affected. The author concluded that enfranchisement would happen where the labor was not essential to the national economy.
In the United States, the different states have provided tougher laws for those who would take away the rights of children through child labor. One meta-analysis of state labor laws found that "Illinois State agencies may not issue procurement contracts if the contracts do not assert that no foreign-made material, equipment, or supplies furnished to the State may be produced in whole or in part by the labor of any child under 12 years" (Fitzpatrick, 2006). The same labor researcher found that different states were constantly upgrading in-state…