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Overview and Introduction: Child Labor at the Turns of the Century

At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century (a.k.a. the Gilded Age), the advent of industrialism in America demanded a large and extensive labor force to shoulder the mass production of factories. The labor created by industrialism was monotonous, repetitive, and required very little skill, reducing workers to parts of the machine with which they worked. Because of the novelty of the industrial system, the government was not yet acquainted with the problems spurred by industrialism, and thus could not efficiently regulate industry. Industrialists were free to set the hours and pay of factory workers and to exploit the labor of the masses (mostly immigrants), who were ignorant of their rights and accepted the arbitrary nature of industry at the time. Factory owners thought only of profits, regardless of the endless toil to which their employees were subjected, and hence tried to compact as many workers and machines as possible into one building. Factories were run day and night throughout the year for most efficiency. Consequently, factory workers were placed under harsh and rigorous conditions for extensive periods of time and were not protected by laws regulating their rights to minimum wage, maximum hours, or compensation.

As a most efficient and profitable means of labor, children were employed in factories. Child labor was feasible because of the simple nature of factory work: workers were needed only to operate and assist machines which manufactured goods; no learned skill was necessary to perform tasks such as repeatedly pushing buttons on machines, or resetting machines every few minutes, or even working a textile loom. Children could perform tasks such as these and could also be paid significantly less for the same labor and quality of labor as adults. Thus, when families fell in need of more income (as was common among the poor during the late 1800s and early 1900s), children were readily employed over their parents. Working children were then subjected to the brutal conditions of mines and factories and were given little or no rights.

Today child labor exists throughout the world, especially in under-developed or developing countries. Although the exploitation of children for labor is prohibited in present-day America and laws regulating labor conditions ensure humane treatment of workers, America still deals with child labor and cruel working conditions. This is because the American economy relies on an intricate global economy and thus indirectly exploits child labor through its interaction with those developing countries and through American consumption of child-manufactured goods. Child labor in America has nearly been extinguished, yet America still relies on children in the international labor force which works under conditions much like those of the Gilded Age.

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