Today in History: Fair Labor Standards Act takes effect in 1938, banning child labor

October 24th, 2013

In the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt sought to reform labor laws in the United States, including enforcing a federal minimum wage and banning child labor. The Fair Labor Standards Act established the modern 40-hour work week, created a federal minimum wage, and prevented children under the age of 16 from working during school hours.

In 1936, a young girl passed a note to President Roosevelt, describing the poor treatment of child laborers in a sewing factory. President Roosevelt told a nearby reporter, “Something has to be done about the elimination of child labor and long hours and starvation wages.” Children routinely faced difficult conditions in factories, including long hours and unstable pay. For instance, a survey by the Labor Department’s Children’s Bureau found that nearly one fourth of working children worked 60 hours or more per week, and only one third of working children worked less than 40 hours.

Spearheaded by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the Fair Labor Standards Act was signed into law by President Roosevelt on June 25, 1938 and took effect on October 24.

For a vivid account of working in the factories as a child, read Jack London’s short story, “The Apostate: A Child Labor Parable,” informed by his own childhood experience of working 12-hour days at a cannery for ten cents an hour. For a detailed history of the movement, read “The Labor Movement in America.”  

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