I was on vacation and have been unable to post for a few days. I was going to skip today as well, but there is a great article in today’s Huffington Post. It describes how children are made to work throughout most of the world. The two main exceptions: Europe and North America (plus the lightly populated Australia). What do these areas have in common? Workers joined together in unions, often allying with religious reformers and advocates for children, to fight for laws that protected children from exploitations. The next time someone speaks against unions, remind them that there are many places in the world where there are no unions. Those are places where wages are very low and an adult can be working next to a child.
Aljazeera America reports that children as young as 7 are harvesting tobacco in the United States. It cites a report by Human Rights Watch that features interviews with 130 children in four Southern states. The children are paid the minimum wage of $7.25, which does nothing to mitigate the fact that child labor is wrong. Apparently, these children are working legally according to a law that lets children of any age work on “small” farms. Worse still, many of the children report becoming ill from a condition called nicotine poisoning. This report is outrageous. Will it become part of our political debate? Of course not. The children are poor and minority. They are invisible, and what is being done to them is shameful.
On his TV show, Ed Schultz interviewed Mike Daisey who traveled to investigate conditions at Apple’s manufacturing plant in 2010. He found workers as young as 12-14 years old. Daisey returned to America, wrote, and performed a monologue entitled The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which is he is now releasing with a common use license (the opposite of copyright), allowing anyone to perform his work.
Apple has decided to let investigators audit their plant because of consumer complaints. Daisey was a big force in their decision. His action is proof that people of conscience – including consumers – can change the lives of working people. Somewhere, Harriet Beecher Stowe is smiling.
Common Dreams has posted an excellent article by Michelle Chen that surveys states attempting to relax child labor laws. I worked during high school. So did most of my friends. However, these laws are often looking to allow younger children to work and let them be paid less than the minimum wage.
The same people who complain that schools are failing are proposing these laws. Will children who work do better in school? What is our priority as a nation? Looking at these laws, the priority for some politicians seems to be driving down wages at whatever cost, even if it involves exploiting children and young people.
In a speech at Harvard, Republican presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich suggested replacing union janitors at inner city school with the children who attend the school. He called laws that prevent children from working before the age of 14-16 “totally stupid.” He did not say what restrictions – if any – he would put on child labor.
What Gingrich doesn’t consider is how many adults his plan would throw on the street. He claims to be doing what is best for the children. Looked at more clearly, his real target seems to be public union employees who have been the targets of Republican governors across the U.S.
This proposal is foul on two levels. First, it seeks to make children workers rather than learners. Second, it would increase unemployment and income inequality he claims to want to lower by putting adults, many of whom are supporting children, on the streets. This solution would make the problem worse.
Gingrich has long been one of the most cynical politicians in the U.S. With this “modest” proposal, he has reached a new low.