"How come it's OK, even exemplary, for teenagers to spend 40 hours a week in sports, glee club, chorus, debate society or any other select activity sanctioned by the social elite, but if you are a teenager who wants to work or needs to work, there are limits?"
"It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid."
"You give lots of poor kids a work experience in the cafeteria, in the school library, in the front office. I'll stand by the idea young people ought to learn how to work. Middle-class kids do it routinely. We should give poor kids the same chance to pursue happiness."
On the surface, these sorts of statements appeal to some voters. It is useful to clarify the assumptions they are premised upon:
1. Child labour is analogous to other activities children participate in.
2. The solution to family poverty is child labour.
3. Child labour is, on balance, a good experience for children.
Stated bluntly, there are, of course, some fairly clear problems with these assumptions. Employment differs from, say, glee club, in that employment is an economic, rather than educational, relationship. Few glee-club organizers face financial incentives to expose glee club members to unsafe work or excessive hours. Not so employers.
In fact, the exploitation of children by employers to drive down wages and production costs is why civilized countries enacted child labour laws in the first place a century ago. Suggesting employers won’t simply fall back into this behaviour is, at best, naïve and, at worst, intentionally deceptive.
Child labour is not the answer to family poverty. In the context of the United States, increasing adult employment (perhaps with adequate social supports) will do a better job of that. Further, government regulation is not the cause of trans-generational poverty—that is a byproduct of the functioning of capitalism whereby the (dis)advantaged maintain or increase their (dis)advantage over time.
And, finally, child labour is dangerous. While it may be possible to wander off into the abstract and conclude that, on balance, child labour is good, this ignores the reality of employing children.
Children are physiologically and intellectually immature. They are inexperienced and have difficulty avoiding dangers that experienced workers do. They tend to be grouped in dangerous occupations. They are less able to resist employer pressures around what they will do and how much they will be paid when compared to adult workers.
Relaxing child labour laws will both drive down wages and increase the number of children who are injured on the job. The attraction of low wages to employers is as understandable as employers’ willingness to maim and kill children to get low wages is reprehensible.
-- Bob Barnetson