Sunday, August 10, 2014

What Should the Minimum Working Age Be?

A recent article in The Times by Rhys Blakely highlights how “Bolivia has caused anger among human rights advocates after legalising child labour from the age of 10. Supporters of the move, signed in to law in July 2014, say that lowering the minimum working age from 14 merely acknowledges a reality. Many poor families in Bolivia have no choice but for children to work, and backers say the new laws offer safeguards.”
There is a natural reaction in ‘the West’ to equate child labour to sweatshops – where a sweatshop is defined as a factory or workshop, especially in the clothing industry, where manual workers are employed at very low wages for long hours and under poor conditions. Many workplaces through history have been crowded, dangerous, low-paying and without job security; but the concept of a sweatshop originated between 1830 and 1850 as a specific type of workshop in which a certain type of middleman, the sweater, directed others in garment making under arduous conditions and where child labour laws were often violated.
Yet at the other extreme if we look at some teenage Internet millionaires from the West, they all started their ‘careers’ as kids – Nick D’Aloisio, Cameron Johnson, Adam Hilderth, Juliette Brindak, Ashley Qualls, John Maggenis, Adam Horwitz, Jon Koon, Tyler Dikman, for example.
Where Nick D’Aloisio started using computers at 9 and writing apps at 12; Cameron Johnson was 5 when he started selling vegetables to neighbours and was 9 when he started his first business ‘Cheers and Tears’; Juliette Brindak was just 10 when she came up with ‘Miss O and friends’; and Tyler Dikman was selling lemonade at 5, making $22 an hour and at 10 was making $74 an hour and even started investing in stocks.
So is it the age that’s the problem or the type of work and experience that is the real crux of the problem? The Bolivian situation is ‘meant’ to be a win-win for both parties – and though these youngsters aren’t likely to be Internet millionaires is some work experience at a young age better than none at all?
In the US the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets 14 as the minimum age for most non-agricultural work. However, at any age, youth may deliver newspapers; perform in radio, television, movie, or theatrical productions; work in businesses owned by their parents (except in mining, manufacturing or hazardous jobs); and perform babysitting or perform minor chores around a private home.
The US legislation is mirrored in many Western countries where in today’s social media and reality driven world there are a host of parents trying to get their kids accepted as ‘child stars’ of some kind or another – be it in movies, music, anything. And one wonders which is worse – a child in the West being ‘forced’ into audition after audition; or the 10 year old in Bolivia?
The new law in Bolivia stipulates that “ten year olds will be able to work as long as they are under parental supervision and also if they attend school. Twelve year olds may be contracted to work for other than their parents.” The Bolivian president, Evo Morales, who worked as a boy herding llamas, has backed the new working age.
Opponents of the new law argue that people who start work as children obtain less education, followed by lower earnings as adults – and they are then likely to send their children to work, perpetuating the cycle.
So in the 21st Century should we be looking at age – or the working conditions and opportunities for the child – and when we are critical of countries like Bolivia are we sure that our home countries have got the ‘recipe’ right for our own ‘home-grown’ children.
There are more child celebrities and entrepreneurs than ever before in the West, and though this is great for them – I don’t think the jury has reached a verdict on the impact on other young children; and whether this has a negative influence on a child’s perception of work and reality.
Some may argue that a 10 year old in Bolivia is more ‘aware’ of their own environment and the opportunities than many of their counterparts in the West – so what is the answer and how should one define a minimum working age?
Blakely, R. (2014). Bolivia law allows children to work from the age of 10. The Times, Saturday 19th July, p.44.

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