With no child labor laws in place, poor working conditions, abuses, injuries and even deaths were commonplace throughout the late 19th century. Children risked their health, were not educated, and lost their childhoods while working 12 to 18 hour days for often just one dollar.
Although it took many years of hard work from advocates such as the National Consumers League, in 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). It provided workers with essential protections and placed limits on many forms of child labor, aimed at ensuring that their jobs don’t interfere with their education or health. The federal law set minimum ages of 16 for work during school hours, 14 for certain jobs after school, and 18 for dangerous work, with some exemptions.
Despite agriculture being one of the most dangerous industries (the U.S. Department of Labor statistics consistently rank it in the top three along with mining and construction), lawmakers exempted children working in agriculture from nearly all of the protections called for in the FLSA. That exemption remains intact today. Farmworker children as young as 12 are allowed to work an unlimited amount of hours outside of school, many times in jobs that require them to use sharp tools and that expose them to dangerous chemicals. Children are also allowed to perform hazardous work in agriculture at the age of 16, including operating heavy machinery, work that is deemed illegal in all other industries. According to the 2011 Fact Sheet on Childhood Agricultural Injuries, between 1995 and 2000, there were 695 total farm-related youth fatalities on U.S. farms. The Children in the Fields Campaign advocates not only for the protection of farmworker children, but for all children.
Now, there are legislators who are seeking to erode current protections for all working youth. In Feb. 7, Missouri State Senator Jane Cunningham (R-St. Louis) introduced SB222, which would revoke parts of the current Missouri child labor laws. The bill will allow younger children to work and remove the restrictions on the number of hours they are allowed to work in addition to removing the need for a work permit. If the bill is passed into law, schools will lose the ability to pull a permit if a child’s academic performance begins to suffer. The bill would also “remove the authority of the director of the Division of Labor Standards to inspect employers who employ children and to require them to keep certain records for children they employ,” and “repeal the presumption that the presence of a child in a workplace is evidence of employment.” Last year alone, the department issued 872 child labor violations across the state, with time and hour violations as the second most common type of citation. On Feb. 10, the bill was referred to the Senate General Laws Committee and did not have a set hearing date yet.
What’s more disturbing is that Missouri isn’t the only state attempting to weaken child labor laws. Maine’s State Senator Debra Plowman (R-Hampden) is backed by Gov. Paul LePage in a bill allowing highschoolers to work longer hours and more often during the school year. Those pushing to repeal the child labor protections enacted in 1991 for the changes include industry groups such as the Maine Restaurant Association, arguing that current laws are too strict compared to other New England states.
If enacted, the proposed bills would leave working children vulnerable to pressure from employers to work more than they feel comfortable with, increasing the danger of fatigue and taking the focus away from their studies. Contrary to what Missouri State Senator Cunningham may believe, not all parents act in the best interest of their children and employers won’t always put the child’s welfare above their bottom line. If employers could be trusted to regulate child labor, child exploitation would have never been an issue in the U.S. and the FLSA would not have been enacted.
Having children focused on working, whether it’s out of their own desire or because they feel pressured to, has been shown to interfere with their education and can condemn them to a life of poverty. Migrant and seasonal farmworker children, through agricultural exemptions in U.S. labor laws, are currently allowed to work more than any other group of children in the country, and also have staggering dropout rates – it is estimated that more than half never graduate from high school.
The U.S. needs to strengthen and equalize the child labor laws for the safety of all children, not take steps backwards.