April 26, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

GOP hopes to flood labor market with the cheap labor of children

Rewriting child labor laws isn’t the half of it.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Liberal democracy suffers typically when political controversies are left to the eye of the beholder. Consider a new debate over old laws governing child labor. 

On the one hand are Republicans 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. With business allies, they 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.” The bills “are an attempt to roll back crucial child labor protections that are nearly a century old.”

Firms, in aggregate, keep refusing to budge on pay. Republicans, 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.

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 a matter of opinion when it’s a matter of fact: Child labor laws affect everyone who participates in the economy. Since everyone participates, child labor laws affect us all. If we don’t put this fact at the center of the debate, liberal democracy suffers.

Set aside emotional appeals by liberal critics. Their goal is eliciting sympathy for kids on the strength of America’s past (and horrific) 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 is eliciting sympathy for children who do not work in horrific working conditions that do not exist currently. True, true. Give these Republicans an inch. They’ll take a mile. But as long as horrific working conditions do not exist currently, and they do not (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’re trying to loosen up the labor market. Why?

So the cost of labor goes down.

The market is tight. Unemployment hasn’t been this low since 1969. 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, some workers can shop their labor around to firms that will.

The result has been rising wages, even as inflation eats into them.

Adding more complexity 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 president’s 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, in this case with 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 the whole economy. 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 GOP’s objective. Why should there be no doubt? Because that’s what they’re telling us.

A Republican state senator from Minnesota said 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 jobs. Flooding the market with cheap labor is a twofer. Firms can pay kids pennies. Kids accepting pennies means adults elsewhere will accept pennies.

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 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 in a future that might look bad, maybe, but hasn’t happened.

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. 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.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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