Children have always worked in our country. On farms, in factories, in family-owned businesses, children have worked and continue to do so. However, we know that children face increased risks for injuries and fatalities in many jobs, and that working often means that children are not in school.
In a Minneapolis suburb where a school is under construction, a union boss stops by the non-union work site to check on things.
He saw something surprising: a boy, who appeared to be about 12 or 13, wearing jeans and a fluorescent work vest, smoothing mortar on a brick wall. It was a clear violation of child-labor laws, which prohibit 12 and 13-year-olds from working most jobs, except on farms, and also say that youths aged 14 and 15 may not work in hazardous jobs, including construction.
When others in the Laborers Union went to the site, they saw a boy too, this time driving a bobcat and cutting concrete with a saw.
“When our staff reported it to me, I wasn’t sure I believed it,” said Kevin Pranis, a spokesman for the union. “We sent him back to take a picture, since we didn’t want to make a report without knowing for sure the kid was underage. We observed him four or five times until we were really sure.”
A union rep spoke to the boy, and told him he was not allowed to work. He left the work site … only to show up at another site a few weeks later. Pranis says they’ve done what they can do; they simply can’t police every one of their sites for underage workers.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration, or OSHA, is the government agency charged with (among many other duties) keeping kids out of work places where they don’t belong, and keeping them safe in places they are allowed to work. However, OSHA is understaffed, and child labor is not particularly high on their priority list. That puts kids at risk, in places like lumber mills, butcher shops and farms.
Not everyone is a fan of keeping kids out of the work place. When an Idaho school district stopped a work program that allowed older students to serve school meals, it wasn’t a popular decision.
It teaches job skills, you have to be on time, you have to do what your supervisor tells you,” said district spokesman Eric Exline, defending the program to a local TV station, and adding that the program saved the school district from having to hire additional employees.
Of course, most states allow older teens to work, albeit with some restrictions on how many hours a teen can work every week. Teens often must abide by a curfew as well. But the concern is not about the kid bagging groceries or the one who makes extra money in the summer mowing lawns.
What’s concerning about recent developments is that some of today’s working minors don’t seem to be performing innocuous jobs that will instill in them a strong work ethic and understanding of responsibility. Rather, they’re in jobs that can—and have—jeopardized their health and safety.
For example, agricultural employers are largely exempt from the sections of the Fair Labor Standards Act that prohibit minors from working. That’s led to 13-year-olds working in tobacco fields, where they can be exposed to nicotine poisoning.
A Human Rights Watch report published earlier this year found that in states such as Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, child workers spend 50 to 60 hours a week in tobacco fields, where they are “exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides, and other dangers.”
We want kids to learn responsibility, a strong work ethic, and to have the benefit of learning to manage an income. For too many children, however, work can be dangerous, and they lack the ability to judge what they are capable of doing and what is risky. We must protect our children from dangerous and exploitative situations.