Maybe We Should Legalize Child Labor After All

Recently there has been much fear surrounding the legalization of child labor in many states, but could legalizing child labor actually be a good thing? After all, the labor movement fought long and hard to ban child labor to protect children from exploitation. But some youth liberationists are challenging this perspective.

In states like Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, and Arkansas, newly passed or pending laws allow companies to hire children without work permits and allow children to work longer hours under more dangerous conditions in places like construction sites, meat packing plants, and automobile factories.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is struggling to enforce existing federal regulations on child labor.

The Department of Labor reported a 69 percent increase in the number of children…employed illegally by companies since 2018.

While the fear of dangerous conditions is real, it is one that all workers face regardless of age. Legalizing child labor would actually allow for more legal recourse for young workers who face such conditions and allow for more oversite from government agencies and, more importantly, labor unions.
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But why is legalizing child labor so important? The National Youth Rights Association explains it well:

…the law prohibits most young people from working in the first place. This makes young people financially dependent on their parents, even though they’re forced to work one job without pay: their own schooling.

While child labor laws were designed to protect young people from being exploited by businesses and parents, they keep young people from obtaining money legally without their parents’ help. It is usually assumed that, if youth were given the freedom to seek jobs, they would be coerced into working inhumane factory jobs like they were in the early 20th century. However, that happened as a result of the authority parents have over their children: parents essentially sold their children out to factories so they could use the money the youth brought home. The youth did not get a say in the matter. Still, in the family businesses and farms where children below 16 are allowed to work, their labor is exploited by parents who treat them like capital.

If young people had legally recognized autonomous rights, a parents’ power to force their children into an abusive work environment would be limited by the youth’s ability to pack up and find work elsewhere, or to simply refuse. If youth were given equal rights to adults, they would have more options available to them to improve their situation. Furthermore, a society which treats education and career credentials in an open and flexible manner could even allow youth to earn liveable wages without being constrained by the rigidity of the current system. With these changes, youth would be able to choose jobs themselves and would not be exploited any more than adult workers…

Even when youth are allowed to work, the number of hours they can work is often limited so that it’s still a challenge for them to earn enough income to live independently.”

Obviously unemployment hurts young people more since, as the NYRA states, “[u]nlike older workers who should have years of savings to fall back on, or may be eligible for Social Security, Medicare or other age based entitlements; younger workers have much less of a personal and public safety net.
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Of course for children to have the type of autonomy NYRA speaks of, we would also have to repeal runaway laws, laws that restrict children from opening independent bank accounts, renting or owning housing, living on their own, or choosing where they live, school truency laws, etc. thus allowing children to choose where they live and who they live with. This would mean that children could avoid living with abusive family or those who will coerce them into working dangerous jobs for their benefit. While some children will still end up working for the benefit of their family, they will have far more choice in the matter. Of course, Young workers face discrimination not just on a legal level, but also on a social level.
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“Trouble finding work isn’t just a reality of the working world, it is partly the fault of discrimination against younger workers.  The concept of “passing” is widely studied in the context of race, gender and other social groups, where those of a disenfranchised minority adjust their appearance or demeanor to “pass” as a member of a favored group.  While generally seen as demeaning and a symptom of pervasive discrimination when other groups do it, it is accepted as common place and common sense for youth to pass as older.  Young people going to job interviews will wear glasses, grow beards, change their makeup and make other attempts to appear older than they are.  Youth is clearly a disadvantage when it comes to finding a job, so successful applicants do their best to distance themselves from their younger age.  The phenomena of passing and the terrible reality of unemployment among young people are clear signs that age discrimination is rampant in the work place, and a serious problem affecting our nation…

Younger workers find themselves routinely being passed up for promotions, given less responsibility, and talked down to because of their age.  Such ageism not only has tangible effects: it can create a hostile work environment and drive younger workers away.”

So this means fighting to shift societal views of the youth as well. However, even if we manage to combat such legal and social barriers, this is just the start since younger workers also face many forms of discrimination on the job.
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“Younger workers face overt age discrimination in both laws and corporate policies.  The first form of discrimination they may encounter is often from the minimum wage itself.  The first minimum wages were set 100 years ago partly out of concern for young people working in sweat shops for extremely low wages.  Today however, the minimum wage explicitly supports much lower wages for young workers.  The Federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour contains an exception – an exception for youth.  Workers under the age of 20 can be legally paid only $4.25 an hour for the same work.  Even with a significant boost to the overall minimum wage, this “sub-minimum” wage has not changed since 1996. It has not even kept up with inflation.”
While minimum wage laws should arguably be abolished, this wage gap is still a clear form of discrimination that makes it more difficult for youth to have autonomy from their families, making it more difficult to escape abusive, neglectful, or otherwise undesirable living situations. The NYRA argues that this sort of wage gap doesn’t even make sense from a market perspective and has adverse effects that harm other workers as well.
“Typically, very young workers start out relatively unproductive, as they are new to the job, but their value to the company rises rapidly.  Before long they hit their maximum level of productivity and plateau there for the next few decades of their working life.  Eventually though, as workers age, their productivity begins to decline.  If your pay was tied to how much value you provide your employer you would see pay follow this general trajectory.  However all workers start their careers being paid little and seeing their compensation gradually increase over time even past the point of peak productivity.  This results in older workers being paid more than they are worth at the expense of younger workers. This is unjust discrimination…
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We believe the massive age inequalities in pay are not only bad for young workers, but bad for older workers and companies as well.  We all take for granted that entry level pay will be low and increase over time, but there is no reasonable justification for this.  Numerous studies demonstrate that young workers are severely undercompensated for their labor and older workers are overcompensated for theirs.  Often this delayed-compensation arrangement is seen as a way to buy loyalty and continued productivity over the life of a worker, however we believe this structure is out of step with the changing world of work and flatly discriminatory.
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Workers today are less likely to remain with a single employer for their lifespan.  Delayed-compensation models are out of step with these new expectations and norms.  Such pay structures are less flexible than the work force they seek to reward and unsuited to the task.  By paying older workers so much more than they contribute to the company, employers are much less likely to hire older workers and when seeking budget cuts, more likely to let them go.  Considering the greater value young workers provide, this is understandable, though harmful to all involved.
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Companies that adopt a flatter, more equitable pay structure will find their compensation better matches up with the productivity of their workers, find themselves better able to compete for talented young workers, and also not have a disincentive to hire older workers.  Such a system would be better for older workers, younger workers and companies themselves.”
In order to combat such discrimination, we need to not only fight to repeal the laws that harm young workers but also fight for workplace unions. Unions could negotiate fairer wages and working conditions for all workers, regardless of age, thus making it fairer and safer for children as well. Far from sending the children back into the mines, we could see the legalization of child labor as a step forward for youth liberation. Just don’t let the fight stop there or it really will be the exploitative nightmare many rightfully fear.
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