Child Labour in North America

Once upon a time, I was a child labourer in the agricultural sector.

You see, I grew up on a small farm. I learned to drive a tractor when I was 10 years old. I was barely strong enough to push the clutch pedal all the way in. By 12, I was loading bales of hay onto wagons and feeding livestock. Like thousands of other youngsters across North America, I was part of a middle-class farm family.

Of course, my experience — and, I would think, the experience of other farm kids in North America — was worlds apart from the brutality of child labour in developing nations. But there is at least some overlap in terms of ethical issues.

So I’ve been interested to see the debate over proposed changes to US labour laws. The proposed changes “would ban children younger than 16 from using most power-driven equipment and prevent those younger than 18 from working in feed lots, grain bins and stockyards….” The only exception would be children working on farms “wholly owned” by their families.

I don’t have a strong point of view to put forward on this issue. I know I learned a lot as a farm kid, and my parents always made sure I was safe. But growing up on a farm, even a North American farm, isn’t always a positive experience.

All I want to point out here is that there are a couple of importantly-different levels to this controversy.

One level has to do with the conflict between parental autonomy and government regulations designed to protect children. Kids are among society’s most vulnerable members, and some parents are careless, and so government has some obligation to promote their safety and wellbeing. But on the other hand, a society in which parents were not allowed to make important lifestyle decisions for their children — including some risky ones — would be intolerable. (Note: far more children die of drowning each year than die in agricultural mishaps. Never mind automobile accidents.)

But the other level here has to do with regulation and the complexity of human business activities.

You see, the details of the above story, about revising US labor laws, illustrate the difficulty inherent in writing regulations. When US labour laws were originally devised, the meaning of the term “family farm” may have been relatively clear and succinct. So it made sense to say that kids, while generally forbidden from working, could still work on their parents’ “family farm.” But as the story points out, the current proposal “did not consider the thousands of farms nationwide that are owned by closely held corporations or partnerships of family members and other relatives.” In other words, there’s more than one way to structure a business that fits the basic criteria for what we would legitimately call a “family farm,” of the kind that merits a (partial) exemption from child labour laws.

And so this case provides just one more little example of the general principle that regulations aimed at regulating business face the eternal challenge of keeping up with varying and evolving business practices. That means not just headaches for regulators, but also heightened obligations for business to self-regulate.

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