Monday, July 2, 2007

Labor Protections Have Come A Long Way in America and China

Amid discoveries of child and slave labor in China, it is important that Americans remember their own history. The Wall Street Journal relates the struggle the U.S. Congress had with the U.S. Supreme Court over child labor protection in the United States in an article today entitled "Lemonade Stands? Children Used to Toil 14 Hours, Every Day," by Cynthia Crossen.

"In 1916 and again in 1918, Congress passed laws trying to discourage child labor. The Supreme Court found both unconstitutional. So in 1924, Congress passed a proposed constitutional amendment giving the federal government the power to regulate the work of people under 18. Its opponents called it the 'federal youth control amendment.'" I guess early 20th century spin doctors were trying to make child labor protection sound unAmerican. According to the WSJ article, this amendment is still technically pending.

Twenty years later, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 limited child labor and withstood challenges from the Supreme Court. Was it because America had gained a conscience? It had something to do with civil society complaints about working conditions. But it also had to do with technological advances, making child labor less useful. "By then, market forces and new technology were already moving young children out of the labor force."

Will China take 20 years to crack down on child labor? In today's article, "Will China Enforce New Labor Laws?" Jude Blanchette of the Christian Science Monitor says the government appears more willing to enforce child labor laws after new provisions to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2008 were passed on Friday.

"As is always the case with China's laws, the real question will be in whether the new laws are enforced, how they are enforced, and against whom they are enforced," says Dan Harris, an expert at the law firm Harris & Moure. But, he adds, "there is a feeling the new labor law is more likely to be enforced than the old and, in particular, will be enforced against foreign companies."

"Since its emergence as an economic powerhouse more than 20 years ago, China has been dogged by criticisms of poor working conditions, the use of child labor and willingness to placate multinational corporations. "

Twenty years--it seems history is repeating itself.

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