More than 4,000 customers without power in York County

Trend toward loosening child-labor laws is a dangerous ploy to tamp down wages

St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board (TNS)

Anyone familiar with America’s labor history knows there are good reasons for the strict child-labor laws in place across the U.S. Yet in Missouri and around the nation now, business groups, aided by Republican politicians, are working to loosen those laws and allow younger children to work more hours, or in previously prohibited settings, with less oversight. They can talk all they want about creating opportunity for young people, but the clear intent is to secure cheaper labor in a tight market. The potential for abuse isn’t something that has to be imagined; it’s right there in the not-so-distant past.

Child labor was common in the U.S. until the early 20th century. That began to change with The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. In addition to creating a national minimum wage and standard workweek, it prohibited “oppressive child labor” for kids under 16 in factories and mines. Various state laws took it further, requiring work permits and additional restrictions on kids in the labor force.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks at a campaign event for Senate candidate Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) at Dahl Auto Museum as part of Ernst's RV tour of Iowa on Oct. 31, 2020, in Davenport, Iowa. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/TNS)

Now, in one of the more chilling political trends, the same industrial and political forces that have been undermining labor rights for the sake of profit are also working to roll back child-labor laws. In Missouri, legislation advanced this session to extend legal working hours for teens from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on school nights, along with a separate measure to eliminate the teen work permits that ensure schools are kept in the loop when kids have jobs.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds last week said she will sign into law a bill allowing children as young as 14 to work in roofing, construction and demolition, and loosening restrictions on work hours. In all, almost a dozen states have passed or proposed the unwinding of state child-labor laws.

This retrograde movement is rising in the shadow of new revelations regarding injuries and deaths to underaged migrant workers who are illegally hired by unscrupulous employers seeking to pay rock-bottom wages. As Reid Maki of the Child Labor Coalition told States Newsroom: “While we’re finding out that child labor is more pervasive and more dangerous than we thought, [these] states have decided: Oh, now’s a good time to weaken the child labor laws. … That’s really just mind-boggling.”

A look at who is behind these measures says it all: business groups, industry and anti-labor-rights politicians who have long sought to keep wages low. One conservative policy group pushing these measures, the Foundation for Government Accountability, is blunt about it, calling teens “a critical source of labor for businesses struggling to find help.” They didn’t say cheap help, but they might as well have.

The timing here isn’t mysterious. Tight labor markets naturally drive up wages. Industry and its political allies seek to sidestep that economic reality on the backs of children. Their constituents shouldn’t let them.

— From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board (TNS).