Are child labor laws an example of “big government telling parents how to raise their children”?
That’s the view of Missouri State Sen. Jane Cunningham, sponsor of a bill that would gut key provisions of the state’s child labor laws. The bill would remove the ban on employment of children under 14 years old: there would be no age limit at all. Current limits on how many hours children can be employed would also be eliminated, as would the requirement for 14- and 15-year-olds to have a work permit. The Missouri Division of Labor Standards would no longer have the right to inspect workplaces to monitor conditions in which children are employed.
Cunningham has defended her proposal as an attempt to put parents in charge and “put back some common sense.” Missouri’s Department of Labor has responded that under current law “casual work such as mowing the lawn and raking leaves for a neighbor, etc., would not warrant the need for a work certificate unless that young person worked for…a landscaping company.”
Her bill would still protect children, Cunningham maintains. She emphasizes that the bill would still require children to continue attending school, and would still ban their employment in occupations such as mining or the manufacture of ammunition or explosives. But it would also allow a seven-year-old to work 60 hours per week.
“There was a time when children’s value was marked by the amount of money they brought home to their families,” commented Gary Schoichet of Communications Workers of America (CWA) 1180. “Employers liked children because they were cheaper, more manageable, and less likely to strike. They were everywhere.”
Among Republican state legislators across the US, Cunningham is not an isolated figure. She has chaired the Education Committee of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an influential conservative group that drafts state-level legislative proposals and circulates them across the US. Other bills to scale back child labor laws have now been introduced in Maine, Minnesota, Ohio and Utah.
If these bills passed, children would still be protected by federal law. But a number of right-wing politicians believe that federal labor laws, including those on child labor, are unconstitutional.
While Ronald Reagan pushed to reverse many social reforms of the 1960s, today the Tea Party right is going after reforms of the New Deal and even the Progressive Era. Its proposals start with rolling back union rights and privatizing Social Security, and move on to questioning the collection of an income tax or the direct election of senators. Several commentators have summed this up as a drive to “repeal the 20th century.”
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