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Donna Ballman: Why Repealing Child Labor Laws Is a Truly Stupid Idea

01/03/2012 02:08 pm ET | Updated Mar 04, 2012

By Donna Ballman

Did you hear the one where the Republican contender for president said we ought to repeal child labor laws? Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but if you weren't paying attention due to all the holiday parties, you might have missed Newt Gingrich's comments on the subject. He said that child labor laws are "truly stupid." He wants poor 10-year-olds to become school janitors.

As the mother of a 10-year-old, Mr. Gingrich's comments have been weighing on me. I had to speak up. Talk like this might get some headlines and votes, but it's shortsighted to even think about abolishing child labor laws.

Anyone who is thinking that this proposal is anything but idiotic needs a little history lesson:
In the beginning of the industrial age, factory owners figured out that the machines were so simple, even a child could operate them. Children were less likely to push for those pesky unions. So poor children were sent to work in factories with dangerous equipment. Children would work 12 to 18 hours a day, six days a week, to earn a dollar. Factories were creative in ways to keep the "young imps" inside, using barbed wire and locked fire exits. Children would do dangerous jobs like carrying hot glass, working in coal mines, hauling heavy loads, and working in textile mills.

In 1832, the New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics and Other Workingmen passed a resolution: "Children should not be allowed to labor in the factories from morning till night, without any time for healthy recreation and mental culture," for it "endangers their... well-being and health."

After Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, Britain became the first country to pass child labor laws. The U.S. lagged behind, with states slowly passing laws around the end of the 1800s. The National Child Labor Committee formed in 1904 to push for national reforms.

A photographer, Lewis Hine, took photos of children at work for the Committee that shamed the nation. I recommend looking at these photos and the captions before you start talking about repeal. Here are some of the captions:

"Furman Owens, 12 years old. Can't read. Doesn't know his A,B,C's. Said, 'Yes I want to learn but can't when I work all the time.' Been in the mills 4 years, 3 years in the Olympia Mill. Columbia, South Carolina."

"One of the spinners in Whitnel Cotton Mill. She was 51 inches high. Has been in the mill one year. Sometimes works at night. Runs 4 sides - 48 cents a day. When asked how old she was, she hesitated, then said, 'I don't remember,' then added confidentially, 'I'm not old enough to work, but do just the same.' Out of 50 employees, there were ten children about her size."

"Out after midnight selling extras. There were many young boys selling very late. Youngest boy in the group is 9 years old. Harry, age 11, Eugene and the rest were a little older. Washington, D.C."

"Francis Lance, 5 years old, 41 inches high. He jumps on and off moving trolley cars [selling newspapers] at the risk of his life. St. Louis, Missouri."

"View of the Ewen Breaker of the Pennsylvania Coal Co. The dust was so dense at times as to obscure the view. This dust penetrated the utmost recesses of the boys' lungs. A kind of slave-driver sometimes stands over the boys, prodding or kicking them into obedience. South Pittston, Pennsylvania."

"Oyster shuckers working in a canning factory. All but the very smallest babies work. Began work at 3:30 a.m. and expected to work until 5 p.m. The little girl in the center was working. Her mother said she is 'a real help to me.' Dunbar, Louisiana."

"Manuel the young shrimp picker, age 5, and a mountain of child labor oyster shells behind him. He worked last year. Understands not a word of English. Biloxi, Mississippi."

"Eight-year-old Jack driving a horse rake. A small boy has difficulty keeping his seat on rough ground and this work is more or less dangerous. Western Massachusetts."

"Children on the night shift going to work at 6 p.m. on a cold, dark December day. They do not come out again until 6 a.m. When they went home the next morning they were all drenched by a heavy, cold rain and had few or no wraps."

"Fish cutters at a canning company in Maine. Ages range from 7 to 12. They live near the factory. The 7-year-old boy in front, Byron Hamilton, has a badly cut finger but helps his brother regularly. Behind him is his brother George, age 11, who cut his finger half off while working. Ralph, on the left, displays his knife and also a badly cut finger. They and many youngsters said they were always cutting themselves. George earns a dollar some days usually 75 cents. Some of the others say they earn a dollar when they work all day. At times they start at 7 a.m. and work all day until midnight."

It took the Great Depression and high adult unemployment to finally end child labor. It wasn't until 1938 that FDR signed the Fair Labor Standards Act making 16 the minimum age for most work.

The Child Labor Public Education Project has studied the health effects of child labor, and they are devastating. Children are injured at a rate of about 25 percent at work. They suffer hearing loss, stunted growth, higher absorption of dangerous chemicals, and are more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors. Children can suffer permanent disabilities and even death due to their work.

Before you jump on the "repeal child labor laws" bandwagon, I urge you to look at Lewis Hine's photos, read the studies and inform yourself. Do we really want to go that far backward? It's time to look forward, to figure out how to get adults back to work, and to stop talking about truly stupid things like child janitors just to grab some headlines.

Donna Ballman is the award-winning author of The Writer's Guide to the Courtroom: Let's Quill All the Lawyers, a book geared toward informing novelists and screenwriters about the ins and outs of the civil justice system. She's been practicing employment law, including negotiating severance agreements and litigating discrimination, sexual harassment, noncompete agreements, and employment law issues in Florida since 1986. Her blog on employee-side employment law issues is Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home. To find out more about Donna, visit her on Red Room, where you can read her blog and buy her books.