North America

Back to Study Table of Contents

Study: Illegal Child Labor in the United States
Sponsored by The Associated Press

I. Introduction

To protect the health and development of children, a number of laws regulate child labor in the United States. Federal regulation of child labor in non-agricultural industries is contained in provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), enacted in 1938 and amended several times since then.{1} Most states also have laws applying a variety of higher standards to regulate the employment of children. The types of restrictions imposed by the federal and state laws include restrictions on total hours worked in a day or week, hours during which work can be performed, and work in occupations or industries deemed to be hazardous. In recent years there has been substantial concern about the extent of illegal child labor in the U.S., and its effects on the health and development of children (Corban, 1988a, 1988b; U.S. GAO, 1990b, 1991; Pollack et al., 1990; Golodner, 1990; Lantos, 1992; Dumaine, 1993; National Child Labor Committee, 1994; Childrens Safety Network, 1995; Landrigan et al., 1995; Clark, 1996; NIOSH, 1995, 1997).

While child labor has been a long-standing policy concern, there are no comprehensive data on the extent to which children work in violation of child labor laws. The total number of illegally employed minors detected by the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division went from 9,243 in 1983 to 27,528 in 1991, but there is no reliable way to determine what share this represents of all illegally employed minors (U.S. GAO, 1992).{2} While there has been one prior study of illegal employment among 15-year-olds (U.S. GAO, 1991), there have been no estimates of illegal child employment across all ages. This report therefore uses a variety of datasets to analyze the extent of illegal employment of children and adolescents in the United States.{3} Section II describes the data sources used and their strengths and limitations, while Section III presents prevalence estimates of illegal child labor and explains their derivation. Section IV compares demographic and employment characteristics between illegally employed youths and legally-employed youths and adults, followed by estimates of employer cost savings from illegal child labor in Section V, the trend since 1970 in illegal child labor in Section VI, and conclusions in Section VII.


{1} This was after earlier federal laws were struck down by the Supreme Court (Pollack et al., 1990: 363-4). For research on child labor in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when these laws were being developed, see Parson and Goldin (1989), Brown et al. (1992), and Holleran (1993). For a sampling of the politics surrounding child labor at the turn of the century, see Mitchell (1975) and MacLaury (1975).

{2} Also, Corban (1988b) reports on a child labor law survey of teenagers that found 56% reporting a violation or injury, but it is not known how representative the sample was of all employed teens. {3} Illegal employment here refers to jobs held by minors in violation of federal or state child labor laws. It does not cover activities in violation of other laws, such as prostitution or drug-dealing, and does not cover illegal immigration per se (but counts illegal immigrants working in conditions that violate child labor laws).


Copyright 1998 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Send comments and questions about The WIRE to

Return to PANGAEA HomePage