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Jewish World Review
March 2, 2005
/ 21 Adar I, 5765
Washington's labor laws now hurt children more than they protect them
Should children be allowed to work in sawmills?
What if they're Amish?
Under federal law, anyone under 18 is forbidden to work in a sawmill. Well, almost anyone. Last year, Congress declared it permissible for a 14-year-old to work in a sawmill if a statute or court ruling exempts him from having to attend school past the eighth grade. That's code for "if he's Amish," and in case you don't get the message, the statute specifies that such a person must be supervised by "an adult member of the same religious sect or division."
So if an Amish parent wants to raise his children to an Amish lifestyle and send them to work in a sawmill when they finish eighth grade, he can do it. But if a child is not Amish, he is forbidden to work in almost any job until he is 14, in most jobs until he is 16, and in a considerable number of jobs until he is 18. Why? Because to "protect children," Congress and the Department of Labor have decided they know just which village it takes to raise a child: Washington, D.C. But the truth is that Washington's labor laws now hurt children more than they protect them.
They almost took away Tommy McCoy's dream. At the age of 14, while other boys and girls his age cheered from the stands, Tommy was on the field with the Savannah, Ga., Cardinals. He was the batboy.
When the feds descended on Savannah to order Tommy fired, there was enough publicity that Robert Reich, then U.S. secretary of labor, reviewed the case himself and made an exception for Tommy. According to a Harvard Business School publication, Reich's advisers warned him that he would undermine the child labor laws. "If you allow this," went the argument, "tomorrow we will see 14-year-old peanut vendors and 13-year-old parking-lot attendants; there is no shutting that door."
Would that be terrible? Granted, most kids don't dream of being parking-lot attendants, but for some children, such low-glamour jobs may be the only available routes to a dream the only way to pay for a computer or a guitar. For some, these jobs are where they'll develop the basic skills they'll need later for more serious jobs.
I've accompanied Labor Department cops as they barged into "sweatshops violating child labor laws." I expected to see horrors, but I never did. What the cops call "sweatshop," I call "employer." No teen ABC interviewed after the raids said he was being abused. All of them wanted the work. As the employers sullenly completed government paperwork, the teens would slip out the back door and find another illegal job. The bureaucrats didn't help kids; they only took choices away.
One young grocery bagger who lost his job because someone asked about child labor laws told us, "I was really sad because, they're not ... making us work. I mean, we wanted to do this."
The batboy was lucky because Secretary Reich, who had but newly taken command at the Labor Department, decided to use his power to make an exception to avoid looking like a fool by cracking down on batboys.
The Labor Department also gives a special exemption to child actors and farm workers and for some reason to wreath makers. Is that how American law should work? Special breaks for some, often those who lobby best? Should the right to work depend on some Washington big shot saying, "We can make an exception when we choose"? Why is an anonymous grocery bagger less entitled to his freedom and to his dreams than the Olsen twins?
The bureaucrats say without these laws, children will be abused. But there are millions of employers in America, and they compete for workers. That marketplace competition protects workers better than job-killing Labor Department rules. If McDonald's treats a kid badly, he can usually get a job somewhere else. In a free society, people normally take jobs because they think they're better off with them than without them. If you are forced to take a particular job, that's called slavery, and the Constitution and criminal law are on hand to address the matter.
Who is best able to figure out whether a job would benefit a particular child? The child himself, who must live with the decision? His parents, who presumably know and love him? The child and parents together? Or the government, which, unless he can get a special exception, will protect the child from following his dream?
Give Me a Break.
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Give Me a Break
Stossel explains how ambitious bureaucrats, intellectually lazy reporters, and greedy lawyers make your life worse even as they claim to protect your interests. Taking on such sacred cows as the FDA, the War on Drugs, and scaremongering environmental activists -- and backing up his trademark irreverence with careful reasoning and research -- he shows how the problems that government tries and fails to fix can be solved better by the extraordinary power of the free market. Sales help fund JWR.
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