It’s been a long time since the engines of American industry were driven by tiny fingers. So when Newt Gingrich recently proclaimed, “Young people ought to learn how to work,” and suggested that children could develop a strong work ethic by working as janitors in their own schools, many Americans probably missed the throwback to the early twentieth century, when hundreds of thousands of children toiled in factories. But after decades of campaigns against youth exploitation, the right is rekindling vestiges of the sweatshop era with legislation aimed at rolling back child labor laws.
While they didn’t go so far as to recruit tweens back to the factory floor, throughout 2011 state legislators pushed bills to erode regulation of youth employment. Maine Republicans sought to ease protections for young workers with amicably named legislation to “Enhance Access to the Workplace for Minors.” The original bill, introduced by State Representative David Burns, would remove some limits on working hours for teenagers and expand the number of days a youth under 20 could work for $5.25 an hour—to about half a year. That would be a bargain for employers, who pay adult Mainers a minimum wage of $7.50. Last summer, a more limited teen labor bill passed, which only eased restrictions on working hours.
Dismissing his bill’s critics in a Press-Herald commentary, Burns argued the purpose was simply to provide job-seeking youth valuable opportunities, since many “have no experience, and perhaps no work ethic, and don’t merit the minimum wage until they learn a job.” As for government safeguards against abuse, he added, “We have usurped the responsibility of families to make intelligent decisions and transferred that responsibility to school officials and the state.”
Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s legislature, following a vicious battle with unions over protections for collective-bargaining rights, repealed regulations on the hours that 16- and 17-year-olds could work during the school week and breaks.
In Missouri, Republican State Senator Jane Cunningham proposed removing restrictions on hiring kids under age 14 and on the hours and times of day that teens can work. Touting the policy as “common sense,” Cunningham argued last February, “We’re not doing students any favor by telling them, ‘You cannot work.’ ”
Though changes in laws would not trump the overarching restrictions in federal labor regulations—which generally set 14 as a minimum employment age, with exceptions for agricultural work and some other types of jobs—advocates say state-level rollbacks undermine critical protective standards. “Kids in these states can now be made to work longer hours, later into the night,” Anne Thompson, a policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project Action Fund, told The Nation. “This is part of coordinated efforts by conservatives across the country to use the economic crisis to shred critical worker protections.”