Child labor "exploitation" often a matter of definition

By Richard Louv - San Diego Union Tribune - March 18th 1990

Children are the new undocumented workers.

    That's how it seemed last week, as the U.S. Labor Department conducted a nationwide crackdown on employers of children, including Burger King and door-to-door candy merchants.

    Thinking about this sweep, I remembered my own experience, at age 13, working as a door-to-door Watkins Product sales kid - offering pure vanilla extract, the only sneezeless pepper. I can still feel that aluminum case in my hand, ringing the doorbell....

"Madam, we're giving away free samples today...."

"Well, I, busy...."

"Would you like the shampoo or the cream rinse?"

"Oh, well, I guess the cream rinse."

    By the time they've made the choice, you're in the door. That's what my team of sales kids were taught:Always give 'em a choice.

For a shy kid afraid of adults, it was a great experience.

    Later, I discovered that the fellow driving us around to the neighborhood was taking an extra cut of the top. I was exploited, no doubt about it, but even today, when dealing with editors, I remember, "Always give 'em a choice."

    Today, more children than ever are getting ripped off. Or at least that's the impression one gets from the media flurry surrounding the Labor Department's child-labor crackdown. Last week, a 500-member Labor Department strike force charged thousands of businesses around the country with violating child-labor laws (93 violations were found in San Diego County), including working children long hours on school days and hiring them to operate hazardous machines such as meat slicers.

    " I don't think the Labor Department was prepared for the media blitz this sweep created," said Kathy Parker, shortly after being interviewed by Channel 10. Parker is student work-permit clerk for San Diego Unified Schools.

I find several things troubling about all of this.

    First, the legal definition of child-labor exploitation depends on which government agency you believe. Parker operates under child-labor rules set down by the federal and state department of labor, the California Administrative Code, the California Education Code, state and federal labor codes, San Diego Unified School District procedures, and assorted city ordinances. At best, the regulations are confusing.

    A 13-year-old flipping hamburgers is illegal: a 5-year-old working as an actor is not. In California, the California education codes governing child labor consider a 17-year-old an adult if he has graduated from high school, but not if he is a high school dropout, even if he's supporting a family.

Does anyone sense a bit of class privilege going on here?

    Perhaps as a result of this confusing web of regulation and bureaucracy, only about half of the kids working in San Diego hold work permits.

These kids are literally undocumented workers.

    In fact, some of the forces drawing undocumented aliens up from Mexico are also pulling children into the work force. Because of the aging of America and the reduction of the fertility rate, the pool of new workers is growing slower than at any time since the 1930s. The types of entry-level service jobs available in the new labor market are increasingly workable by children and teens. Ironically, as we crack down on illegal immigration, U.S. children will become increasingly attractive to employers. Consequently, the nation is headed for a period of repeated sweeps of child-labor sweatshops.

    As with undocumented-alien sweeps, the child-labor sweeps will create headlines but barely dent the market for youth labor. We'll enjoy the sound of our own outrage, but not  face the real issues.

    One of these issues is the degree to which cynical advertisers and marketers target children and teenagers, who do now much of the family's shopping. This creates extraordinary pressure on kids to work and consume.

    Another issue is the lack of positive adult contact in so many children's lives. Their parents are too busy working; their teachers too overwhelmed. For many teen-agers, an after-school job is the first time that they experience extended contact with adults.

    How does all this work affect kids?

    It depends. Immigrant kids tend to work long hours alongside their parents and relatives in family-owned businesses, a far different experience from working 20 hours a week at Burger King.

    "Teens are experiencing the same pressures as working mothers, trying to hold school lives, work lives and home lives together," says John Orr, a professor at the University of Southern California. He estimates that 80 percent of high school seniors in the western United States hold jobs, about half of these kids are working 16 hours a week or more.

    "Some of the kids in my school are working in banks," one New York middle school principal told me. "A lot of these kids are 15-year-old workaholics. They don't have time to be kids."

    Ellen Greenberger, a professor of social ecology at UC Irvine, says kids who work long hours beginning early in their high-school careers are at greater risk of dropping out, show increased tolerance of unethical business practices, and may be more likely to take drugs or alcohol because they can afford it and because of the stress from dull, routine tasks.

    And a University of Michigan survey found that more than 80 percent of high-school seniors spend all or nearly all of their earnings on daily needs and entertainment. They don't save their money; they consume.

    But how is that any different from the adult generation? The point isn't our kids' behavior, or even a few employers' behavior, but parents' behavior.

    We may be moving gradually toward a society that views childhood employment as a reasonable alternative to family time and neighborhood play.

    We're saying to children, "Just say no" to exploitive work. But what are we telling them to say "yes" to?

    Until someone answers that question, I'll be a soft touch for the kids who show up at my door selling boxes of candy.

"Wouldja like the milk chocolate or the mint wafers?"

Always give them a choice.

Working Teens