By Judy Gearhart and Adeline Zensius, International Labor Rights Forum
Last month, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich offered his solution for the endemic poverty in many areas of our nation: replacing school janitors with child laborers.
In a speech given to Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Mr. Gingrich argued, “It’s tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children, in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid.” His proposal for reforming child labor laws include replacing unionized janitors with one “master janitor” and several local students to clean their own schools.
Mr. Gingrich’s comments, made in a seemingly offhanded manner that then required additional clarification, indicate how little appreciation he has for child welfare policy – not to mention international norms. Strong child labor laws are critical for safeguarding children’s time and energy for school and learning. Public schools contracting youth as janitors would both create serious health risks and further stigmatize those kids who cannot afford to spend time in extracurricular activities, such as sports, clubs, and student leadership. Contracting poor students to work in jobs that provide very little vocational training for future employment ignores the growing problem of class warfare in our country. These programs have the potential to exacerbate this problem, polarizing our schools into groups of “wealthy” and “poor” students.
These efforts stand in stark contrast to Mr. Gingrich’s proposed programs. How can the United States remain a beacon of hope and a champion of children around the world if the progress we have made at home is reversed? How can we continue to fight child labor in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan, or the cocoa plantations of West Africa, if we ignore our children at home?
In response to Mr. Gingrich’s comments, representatives from the fashion industry, including the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), and the National Retail Federation, as well as labor and human rights advocates, have upheld their support for US child labor laws and international norms. Kevin Burke, president and CEO of the AAFA remarked, “We as an industry are sensitive to child labor and other industries are as well. We try to set an example in the U.S. for partners around the world to follow their own laws. When you have a candidate for president advocating relaxation in those laws, it calls into question the commitment.”
Ignoring any argument about the immorality of child labor, taking jobs away from adults who desperately need them and giving them to children is not a way to help boost the U.S. economy. Instead of proposing strategies to get our country’s children into the workforce, Mr. Gingrich should be offering solutions for the 13 million currently unemployed adults in the United States.