First Time as Tragedy, the Second Time as Farce

child labor.jpgMaine legislators are currently considering two bills, which would roll back child labor protections in the state. LD 1346 would create a subminimum wage of $5.25 an hour (the state’s minimum wage is $7.50 an hour) for any worker under the age of 20 for their first 180 days of work. The bill would also eliminate the maximum number of hours a minor older than 16 can work on a school day and allow minors of any age to work up to four hours a day during non-school hours. LD 516 would allow children to work until 11pm on school nights (current laws permits working until 10 pm) and would allow students to work for a total of 24 hours a week (current law allows 20 hours).

Maine had an unemployment rate of 7.6 percent in March. The state, like most of the country, is suffering from an excess of labor supply, not a dearth of labor demand. Creating a new source of subminimum wage labor is a recipe for increased unemployment and poverty in Maine. More importantly, reducing or eliminating maximum hour ceilings for children and lengthening the after-school workday would incentivize employment over schoolwork and increase the state’s 21 percent high school dropout rate.

Jewish tradition is emphatic about the need to protect workers from the worst inclinations of the free market. Deuteronomy commands, “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land” (24:10). On the basis of this precept, the Central Conference on American Rabbis (CCAR) called for the “abolition of child labor and the raising of the standard age wherever the legal age limit is lower than is consistent with moral and physical health” in 1918. Even at the height of WWII, the CCAR opposed “any relaxation of state and national standards regarding child labor, in spite of war needs.” In 1997 both the CCAR and the Union for Reform Judaism reaffirmed their opposition to child labor both in the United States and around the world in the resolution “Sweatshops and Child Labor.”

A supporter of the bills, Maine Rep. Bruce Bickford, explained the rationale behind the legislation: “Kids have parents. Let the parents be responsible for the kids. It’s not up to the government to regulate everybody’s life and lifestyle. Take the government away. Let the parents take care of their kids.” Bickford does not believe that the legislation would negatively affect academic performance among students, suggesting that students could finish school at 3pm, work a six hour shift, and still have “plenty of time for homework…[since] kids are generally up well past 10:00.”

Bickford’s “ain’t no government like no government” attitude is nothing new, especially when it comes to opposition to child labor protections. It reminds me of the old Marxist adage that “all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice…the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Maine already engaged in a debate over the virtue of child labor regulation. It did so in its infancy as a state in 1847, passing the “Put Learning First, Put Working Second” bill in response to a rash of overworked children falling asleep in class. More than 160 years ago, Maine recognized the important role that government can play in creating a better future for our children and a better life for workers. The exploitation of children for cheap labor was tragic in the 19th Century, and the prospect of reenacting this sad chapter in our nation’s history during the 21st Century would be farcical if the supporters of such legislation were not so serious. Maine cannot afford to allow history to repeat itself.

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Jonathan Backer

About Jonathan Backer

Jonathan Backer is a 2010-2011 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant. He is from Kenosha, WI, and is a member of Beth Hillel Temple.

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