New Child Labor Law Proposals: Benefit or Hinderance?

The United States Department of Labor has proposed an update to child labor regulations.  These regulations are allegedly targeted at improving the safety of young folks working in the area of agriculture.  Are these proposals a step forward for child labor regulations?  Or do these proposals meddle too much with parent and child rights to choose as individuals?

The typical gut reaction to anything having to do with child labor laws is that these laws must be a good thing because forced child labor is bad.  After all, weren’t child labor laws established more than a century ago?

But these proposed laws have nothing to do with preventing the use of force of child labor.  Rather, these proposed laws have to do with preventing (young) workers from doing certain jobs because they may be to seen as too risky or too dangerous.

Updates to the Law
From the Department of Labor website, here is a list of some of the proposed child labor law updates:

  • Strengthening current child labor prohibitions regarding agricultural work with animals in timber operations, manure pits, storage bins and pesticide handling.
  • Prohibiting hired farm workers under the age of 16 from employment in the cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco.
  • Prohibiting youth in both agricultural and nonagricultural employment from using electronic devices, including communication devices, while operating power-driven equipment.
  • Prohibiting hired farm workers under the age of 16 from operating almost all power-driven equipment. A similar prohibition has existed as part of the nonagricultural child labor provisions for more than 50 years. A limited exemption would permit some student-learners to operate certain farm implements and tractors (when equipped with proper rollover protection structures and seat belts) under specified conditions.
  • Preventing children under 18 years of age from being employed in the storing, marketing and transporting of farm-product raw materials. Prohibited places of employment would include country grain elevators, grain bins, silos, feed lots, stockyards, livestock exchanges and livestock auctions.

Whose Risk, Whose Choice?
The proposed law appears to be about risk and choice in work.  It stipulates that children cannot work in a certain agriculture work because of the inherent risk associated with it.  In essence, the state is making the choice for parents and their children, of not taking risky work in order to protect children from harm.

However, some may argue that it should be parents making the choice for or with their children, rather than a law that says children cannot work. Some jobs have more risk than others.  And that risk may be even more true for in agriculture.  However, if both the parent and the child are aware of the risk, and the child is willing to take on the work of their own volition, shouldn’t the child be allowed to work?  No one is forcing the child to work.  The only exemptions allowed under the current and proposed law are for children of farmers.  But why not allow a child of a non-farmer to work in the came capacity, if both a willing individuals?

Also, what of the case where a child has no parent, or where a parent is “not suited” to be a parent.  Who makes the decision then?  Some would say the state should step in to make the decision for or with the child.  But just like in other situations where a parent is not “parent”, the decision of risky agricultural work would fall on the legal guardian and the child, in a similar manner as if the legal guardian were the parent.

On a side note, aren’t these laws a form of ageism, i.e. targeting individuals because of age rather than intellect, ability, or capacity?  In the case of the new labor laws, the young are prohibited to work in certain agricultural fields not because of there skill (or lack thereof), but because of their young age.  Targeting safety is one thing, but targeting safety laws on the basis of age is another.

To Implement New Child Labor Laws or Not
If you are interested in commenting to the Department of Labor on these issues, the deadline to submit has been extended until December 1, 2011.

So, what do you think?  Do these proposed laws protect the young?  Do the laws overprotect the young?  Or are these proposed laws not only burdensome, but prejudice against the young?

Jonathan Mariano is an MBA candidate with the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, CA. His interests include the convergence between lean & green and pursuing free-market based sustainable solutions.