Nearly two years after ABC News cameras uncovered young children toiling away in Michigan’s blueberry fields, federal investigators have found yet another disturbing example of illegal use of child labor in the berry industry.
Three southwest Washington strawberry growers were fined $73,000 last week after the U.S. Department of Labor found children between the ages of six and 11 working in their strawberries fields in June.
TAL Commentary: One of the most pernicious of all government regulations is child labor laws. Perversely, socialist policies make children useless and worthless at the same time.
Protecting children from bad working conditions and unscrupulous employers is a morally laudable goal, but government-created child labor laws have hidden consequences that are even worse.
First, child labor laws make children unemployable, which eliminates their opportunities to become skilled and productive. They have nearly eliminated the mentor-apprentice system of learning. A century ago, a typical 18-year-old was already a skilled tradesman or professional with 6 or 8 years of experience, well able to provide a living for himself or his family.
Look at 18-year-olds today. Most are unskilled, poorly educated by the government schools, and unemployable except in low-wage positions, which are hard to find because minimum wage laws have caused very low demand for their services. Their best prospect is to extend their unproductive adolescence into their twenties by going to government-funded universities where they will continue their mediocre education and land in a highly competitive job market, already heavily burdened with debt.They will have less opportunity to accumulate wealth for their own families, and their children will have even less opportunity than they did.
The second dismal consequence of child labor laws is that they reduce the ability of children to escape abusive conditions at home. If your father was a worthless drunk, in a free market you could go find a job even at the age of 10 or 12. You could then slip some money to your mother and siblings, or bring groceries home. As it is, no employer will hire you because it’s illegal, even if you found an employer who would pay you well and provide a favorable working environment.
Because a few children were employed by a few unscrupulous employers, the state has forbidden all children to be employed, even those who want to work for good employers who want to hire them.
A third unfortunate result is that child labor laws cause a decline in birth rates by subsidizing childlessness. These laws are a wealth transfer from families with many children to families with none. They deprive the large family of income they would otherwise have earned; meanwhile, wages rise because of labor shortages, and these higher wages go to adults. The economic value of children declines, and the birth rate decreases.
The solution is to eliminate government interference in the job markets. There will always be a few bad employers, but in a free market they don’t last long. Other employers will compete for the workers, enticing them with better pay and/or better working conditions.