Erosion of child labour laws a wake-up call


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ON May 3, the Washington Post filed a report on child labour law violations in just one state, Kentucky.

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ON May 3, the Washington Post filed a report on child labour law violations in just one state, Kentucky.

The findings: three Kentucky McDonald’s franchises had illegally employed over 300 children who worked longer hours than the law allowed; two 10-year-olds were working as late as 2 a.m. without pay, one operating a deep fryer, forbidden by law for children under 16; and 27 other McDonald’s locations allowed 242 14- and 15-years-olds to work beyond legal limits.

Bauer Foods was fined for employing 10 year olds; and, Bell Restaurant Group 1 allowed 39 underage youths work at four locations, two during school hours. 688 minors were found employed illegally in hazardous jobs.

Kentucky, unfortunately, is not an outlier. America’s children are under attack.

Multiple states are rolling back child labour laws as part of a push by conservative groups, mostly far-right Republicans, now attempting to pass legislation undoing over 80 years of child protection. In Arkansas, children under 16 can work without parental consent. In Tennessee 16- and 17-year-olds can serve liquor. States are passing legislation in direct violation of federal laws, using the arguments of rights — state rights, parental rights, and children’s rights.

However, underneath all that “rights talk” lies something more insidious and odious — powerful money interests promoting and funding exploitation of the most needy and disadvantaged children in our society.

The Florida-based Foundation for Government Accountability and the Opportunity Solutions Project, their lobbying arm, have been identified as the driving forces behind the elimination of child labour protections. They have enjoyed unbelievable success among Republicans in support of relaxing regulations that prevent children from working long hours and in dangerous contexts.

They are the same group that has opposed anti-poverty program access and Medicaid expansion. Their tools have been the same as those used in their attacks on public education, child care, and myriad social safety nets. They cleverly, and deceitfully, couch their proposed legislative changes under the umbrellas of states’, parental and children’s rights.

At least 11 states now have passed, or are sponsoring, relaxed child labour legislation. And this scourge reaches far beyond the hospitality industry; even middle schoolers were found working in roofing, meatpacking, auto assembly lines and other dangerous occupations in direct violation of federal laws against the exploitation of children. States are justifying their actions on the basis that they, and not the federal government, should regulate workplaces to address labour shortages and they have found a ready resource for labour trafficking in the plight of many children.

The children working long hours in dangerous jobs, sometimes during school hours, are largely those of the working poor, often undocumented youth arriving from Latin America without parents or assigned to distant relatives or non-relative sponsors. The very children who require the protection and nurture of the state to have a hope of becoming contributing citizens, as opposed to lifelong menial labourers, are treated from a young age as expendable parts of the economy, at the same time as essential to its growth, something which is unlikely to benefit them in any way. Their parents and caregivers are coerced into the complicity of offering up their children to a greedy economic imperative and, where they demur, they are also unceremoniously removed from the formula, as in Arkansas, ostensibly under the banner of children’s rights.

This version of children’s rights is the exact opposite of that imagined under the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1930s’ child labour laws. A child is described as anyone under the age of 18. Children are to be protected from danger, exploitation, discrimination on the bases of race, ethnicity, gender, poverty, and family composition, all of which are violated by the new labour laws. They are also meant to enjoy development opportunities, including free education, health care and safe, nurturing environments.

While we are quite aware that we have not achieved these ideals, until recently they have been deemed to be publicly sacrosanct, making recent events even more scary and shameful.

In Canada, we also have our share of politicians and unscrupulous capitalists quite willing to use provincial rights and parental rights as justifications for dismantling our social safety nets, including equal access to education, childcare, and health care. What’s happening in the U.S. should serve as a wake-up call for all of us to be wary and vigilant.

Our young people deserve to have their childhood protected by us, who benefited greatly from having ours protected!

John R. Wiens is dean emeritus at the faculty of education, University of Manitoba.

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