Republicans are trying to flood the labor market with cheap child labor
Liberal democracy suffers typically when controversies are left to the eye of the beholder. Consider a new debate over old laws governing child labor.
On the one hand are the Republicans and business allies in nearly a dozen states who are moving to “loosen child labor laws to help employers fill empty jobs,” according to a report in USA Today. These advocates say “relaxing the rules will prompt more teens to seek out valuable work experiences and make it easier to supplement their families incomes.”
On the other hand, according to the same report, are those who say “minors who work in manufacturing, meatpacking and construction jobs are being exploited or hurt.” It went on to say these bills “are an attempt to roll back crucial child labor protections that are nearly a century old.”
We’re talking about child labor laws, so naturally the focus is on what’s good for teens in workplace settings. But that leaves it to the eye of the beholder. Republicans say “relaxing the rules” is good for them. Critics say it’s not. In that framing, it’s up to teens and parents. But the reality of things is this:
Child labor laws, like all labor laws, affect everyone who participates in the economy. Since everyone participates, child labor laws affect everyone. If we don’t put this fact at the center of the debate, liberal democracy suffers.
Before I go on, set aside emotional appeals by critics of “relaxed” child labor laws. Their goal is eliciting sympathy for kids on the strength of America’s past (and terrible) exploitation of them. “Do you remember the images of children in manufacturing and other dangerous work conditions from the early 1900s?” a critic said, per USA Today. “There is a reason our society said that it is not appropriate for children to work in those conditions.”
The problem with these appeals is that they try to elicit sympathy for kids who don’t work in horrific working conditions that don’t exist currently. Look, I agree. Give these Republicans an inch. They’ll take a mile. But as long as horrific working conditions don’t exist currently, and they don’t, not yet, the Republicans can do what they always do best: deny, deny, deny.
Better to say what they’re doing, not what they haven’t done.
They aren’t just trying to loosen up labor laws.
They’re also trying to loosen up the labor market.
Remember, it’s tight. Unemployment hasn’t been this low since the late 1960s. Firms can’t find enough workers, not because there aren’t enough workers willing to work. It’s because firms, in aggregate, refuse to pay more than they used to. Because they refuse to pay more than they used to, in aggregate, many workers can shop their labor around to those who will.
The result has been rising wages, even as inflation eats into them.
Adding more complexity to a complex situation is the tightening of the US-Mexican border, at the demand of Republican legislators, state and federal, a demand that’s been met largely by the current administration, so that immigrants who’d otherwise take low-paying jobs can’t get to them.
Firms, in aggregate, keep refusing to budge on pay. Republican legislators, in aggregate, keep refusing to budge on immigration. As long as they stick with the Republicans, there’s only one thing businessleaders can do when the usual source of cheap labor is exhausted – replace it with a new source.
Or in this case, an old source – children.
There should be no doubt that flooding the market with cheap labor will not only lower labor costs in some sectors of the economy but in the whole economy as well. Remember, it’s a tight labor market that’s been pushing wages higher and faster than they have been in more than half a century.
There should be no doubt about something else: that lowering the cost of labor by flooding the market with cheap labor is the Republicans’ objective. Why should there be no doubt? Because that’s what they’re telling us.
For instance, a GOP state senator from Minnesota said that child labor laws “make it even harder for businesses to find reliable employers.” So by regulating whether and how kids enter the labor market, child labor laws make it harder to find workers needed for available jobs. Flooding the market with cheap labor is a twofer. Firms can pay kids pennies. Kids accepting pennies means adults elsewhere will accept pennies, too.
The Republicans tell us their real goal in another way.
By saying that “relaxed” child labor laws would help teens supplement their families’ incomes, they’re admitting their parents don’t make enough. But instead of saying that parents should be paid better wages, thus running at odds with businesspeople, they say teens ought to be paid pennies, too.
All of this can be made transparent with enough scrutiny. Instead, though, liberal critics howl at the moon about what the Republicans might do some time in the future that might look bad, maybe, but that hasn’t happened yet.
We can do better.
Say this instead.
It’s not only in the interest of teens that child labor laws stay as they have been for the last century. It’s in everyone’s interest – everyone, anyway, who has labored for a living. If you haven’t, well, you know, sit the hell down.
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