Child labour, employment of children of less than a legally specified age. In Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand, children under age 15 rarely work except in commercial agriculture, because of the effective enforcement of laws passed in the first half of the 20th century. In the United States, for example, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set the minimum age at 14 for employment outside of school hours in non manufacturing jobs, at 16 for employment during school hours in interstate commerce, and at 18 for occupations deemed hazardous.
Child labour is far more prevalent in developing countries, where millions of children—some as young as seven—still toil in quarries, mines, factories, fields, and service enterprises. They make up more than 10 percent of the labour force in some countries in the Middle East and from 2 to 10 percent in much of Latin America and some parts of Asia. Few, if any, laws govern their employment or the conditions under which work is performed. Restrictive legislation is rendered impractical by family poverty and lack of schools.
The movement to regulate child labour began in Great Britain at the close of the 18th century, when the rapid development of large-scale manufacturing made possible the exploitation of young children in mining and industrial work. The first law, in 1802, which was aimed at controlling the apprenticeship of pauper children to cotton-mill owners, was ineffective because it did not provide for enforcement. In 1833 the Factory Act did provide a system of factory inspection.