US: Children in Hazardous Labor – Where is the US headed in addressing hazardous child labor? IIECL

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US: Children in Hazardous Labor – Where is the US headed in addressing hazardous child labor? IIECL

World Day Against Child Labor was created to bring worldwide attention to exploitative child-labor around the globe. Observed on June 12th each year, this year’s focus is on hazardous child labor. Hazardous child labor is considered work that children do that, by its nature, is dangerous to the health, safety and morals of a child and the child’s ability to get an education. The majority of children worldwide are found in hazardous labor situations. Child labor is a global phenomenon and can be found in nearly every country, including the US.

While the US government struggles to come up with ideas of how to stimulate the US job market, some see this as an opportunity to undermine minimum protections for children. There are troubling signs that some are thinking to reestablish child labor as one of the solutions. Early in the 20th century, there was a concerted effort to end the scourge of children laboring in factories and textile mills. While agriculture still only had minimal protections for children, at least the sectors involving manufacturing, mining, construction and service industries were adequately addressed. However, now there is a small but noticeable drive to weaken these protections.

Recently, Maine headlines in May heralded the rolling back of restrictions on the employment of minors by increasing the number of hours that children can work. Children under age 18 can now work 24 hours a week (up from 20) and as late as 10:15pm (prior limit was 10pm) on school nights. The bill’s backers wanted to raise the cutoff to 11 pm on a school night. This change diluted protections that have been in place since 1991 to address the concerns of teachers about working children falling asleep in class. While the rollback was negotiated to less than what had been proposed, the problem is that the legislature actually considered going further. Another bill would have allowed employers to pay workers under 20 a sub-minimum wage—“training wage”—of $5.25, instead of Maine’s state minimum wage of $7.50. Further it would also have eliminated the limit on how many hours a minor over 16 may work on a school night.

Earlier in the year, Missouri considered an even more drastic reduction in protections for children by removing the state’s restrictions on employing children under the age of 14, along with limits on how many hours children could work per day. Further, in order to  weaken enforcement efforts to ensure compliance with the state’s laws, the bill proposed to end routine state inspections of companies employing children. The bill’s sponsor, state senator Jane Cunningham, indicated that the efforts were to “put back some common sense” in the law, and that, “We’re not doing students any favor by telling them, ‘You cannot work.’” The absurdity of the proposed bill was noted by Jay Leno of The Tonight Show when he joked, “Well, yeah, why should the 10-year-olds in China be getting all the good factory jobs?”

Fortunately, there is a higher standard against which all state laws related to child labor must meet as a minimum—the Fair Labor Standards Act. The FLSA was a key part of FDR’s New Deal that placed limits on the use of child labor. Since that time, many states have enacted even stronger protections for children, such as limits on the number of hours and how late into the evening 16 and 17 year-olds can work. States have also stepped in to provide greater protection for children who work in agriculture. Today, however, even the FLSA is coming under attack. A US Senator from Utah, Mike Lee, has questioned the constitutionality of the federal anti-child labor laws. Other Tea Party leaders have expressed similar views. However, their arguments ignore Supreme Court precedent going back to 1941 that holds that Congress has the right to restrict child labor.

Much of the current pressure for loosening the restrictions is coming from businesses that currently employ or want to employ young people, especially the fast-food industry that has been cited for numerous child labor violations as a result of stronger enforcement. These businesses want to have the freedom to schedule high school students on longer and later shifts. Further, they would like to pay minors less than the minimum wage, which would result in greater profits. Their arguments supporting the changes are often centered on so-called advantages that might come from having fewer rules, thus  giving young people “greater flexibility and more valuable experience”  in their work lives. But one has to question how valuable the work experience is when the child is emptying trash cans or handing out burgers through a drive-through window at 10pm on a school night. There are jobs that might provide more valuable experience to a worker, such as using equipment to slice meat or operate cookers filled with boiling oil, but these are considered too hazardous for young workers to perform.

Research shows that working interferes with children’s ability to get an education. Studies have found that the more students work, the lower their grades. Working more than 20 hours a week has been tied to academic and behavioral problems, and to increased dropout rates. Minors, who do not have to pay rent or support a family, can afford to work for less—and will, if a lower-tier minimum wage is established for them. Generally, young people tend to be more malleable in the face of the adults who employ them; less likely to challenge working conditions or to refuse to take on dangerous work assignments. This is why protections are necessary.

Besides education, there are other reasons children need protections when entering the labor force, especially as they relate to their health, safety and morals. Hazardous child labor is work in dangerous or unhealthy conditions that could result in a child being killed, or injured and/or made ill as a consequence of poor safety and health standards and working conditions. Some injuries or ill health may result in permanent disability. In some cases, the health problems caused by work as a child may not develop or show up until the child is an adult. One common area is children doing repetitive bending and stooping and lifting too heavy objects for their size and ability.

More than half of the world’s estimated 215 million child laborers are engaged in hazardous work.  According to an ILO report, ‘Children in hazardous work: what we know, what we need to do,’ a child laborer suffers a work-related accident, illness or psychological trauma every minute. While some progress has been made in the last decade, the problem continues to persist and, in some age groups (15 to 17) rise a startling 20 percent during 2004 to 2008. While a great deal of attention has been placed on eliminating the worst forms of child labor, such as child soldiers and trafficking, less attention and focus has been placed on hazardous labor where more than half of the worlds child laborers can be found. Much of this hazardous work can be found in agriculture, which has been given the least focus and has the weakest laws protecting children worldwide. Overall, children have a high vulnerability to workplace accidents, as has been documented by the numerous deaths of children on job sites throughout the US and worldwide.

Americans should use the occasion of this World Day Against Child Labor to ponder about where child labor laws are headed and plan for what appears to be a concerted campaign to undermine the meager protections that currently exist to protect children from hazardous work here in the US. Instead of undermining the meager laws that are currently in place, we must come together to create a comprehensive approach in which employers,  worker organizations and labor departments develop a constructive plan of action to protect our most treasured resource—the children who are the future leaders of our nations.

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