Bring on the Child Labor!

Why Hawaii should lower the age limit for working minors.


photo by Linny Morris

Whether you’re buying a $6 milk carton or scribbling out a mortgage check, you can’t ignore that Hawaii has a cost of living about 30 percent higher than other parts of the country. Many families struggle, even if they have two wage earners. And companies struggle, too: They have to find workers in a state that last year averaged a 2.6 percent unemployment rate, one of the lowest in the nation. We need more money for Hawaii’s families, and we need more workers. I’m going to throw a radical solution out there: Drop the minimum age for employees down from 14 to 12.

Oh, don’t picture tiny, consumption-wracked waifs bent over glue pots in a Victorian bookbindery. I’m not suggesting children dodge into kilns to pull out the Staffordshire pottery, or leave third grade to mine coal. In the United States, at least, that kind of exploitation is gone, and good riddance. But why shouldn’t a middle-schooler whip up lattes in Starbucks?

Is a 13-year-old inherently less trainable than a 15-year-old to work a fryer at Jack in the Box?

Speaking of fast food, the Centers for Disease Control reports that 28 percent of Hawaii’s high school students were either overweight or at risk for becoming overweight, and 72 percent did not meet recommended levels of physical activity. So some moderate-intensity exercise, say, hauling boxes of frozen peas at Foodland, might actually be helpful. Sure, these kids should be studying, but they seem to find plenty of time to sit in front of the television (the CDC reports that 37 percent of the state’s teens watch more than three hours of TV a day).

illustration by Michael Austin

Currently, the Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations allows 14- and 15-year-olds to work, as long as they provide proof of age and parental consent. Minimum-wage laws apply, and these young workers aren’t allowed to work more than three hours on a school day, eight on a non-school day, and no more than 18 hours a week while school is in session. The department also deems some types of work, such as operating a power-driven slicer or a large compactor, simply too hazardous for young teens. All of this seems reasonable, and could just as easily apply to 12- and 13-year-olds.

“Tween” workers could help defray the cost of private school, which burdens a lot of families in Hawaii, or start saving for college. They would learn fiscal responsibility—turns out, money is not actually printed inside the ATM—and get a head start on their work ethics. And it would keep them busy; get 'em a job at Ann Taylor before they have have a chance to meet 38-year-old weirdos trolling MySpace. It’s also harder to squeeze in time for a graffiti spree or bullying your little neighbor when you’re working until dinnertime and worrying about your 401K plan.

I bet even Unicef would back my plan. It reports that “Children’s work needs to be seen as happening along a continuum, with destructive or exploitative work at one end and beneficial work—promoting or enhancing children’s development without interfering with their schooling, recreation and rest—at the other. Between these two poles are vast areas of work that need not negatively affect a child’s development.”

Exactly. Besides, we need our seventh graders for jobs that they’re naturals at: Tech support.


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Honolulu Magazine November 2018
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