AN AMISH EXCEPTION.
Children can work - - - and a good thing, too.
AT THE LAPP FURNITURE AND TOY STORE IN LANCASTER, PENN -SYLVANIA, A PRETTY TEENAGE GIRL in a long skirt counts out a cust-omer’s change. As in many Amish shops in the town, the girl operates the till while, in a back room, an adult craftsman works with a sawing machine.
The scene is an exception to America’s child-labour laws which forbid children below the age of 18 from working in wood workshops or, indeed, in any other place containing dangerous machinery. Yet the Amish, a religious sect that still clings to 19th-century norms, start work young. They attend one- and-two- room private schools until they are 14 or 15, and then take an apprenticeship. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled that they could do this. An apprenticeship—either learning to farm or doing the books in woodworking shops—is their chance to learn a trade.
Everything was fine as long as “child labour” meant working on the farm. (Amish farm machinery, mostly horses and hand-tools, poses few problems.) But in recent years, according to Donald Kraybill, a professor at the Young Centre for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, land prices have soared so high—to $1 m an acre round Lancaster—that families have left their farms. Instead, most Amish now run work-hops making everything wooden, from gazebos to toys. But these have dangerous machines, which put them in conflict with federal law.
In the past decade, Department of Labour officials have been fining shop owners around $15,000 for hiring under-age teenagers. Businesses have also been threatened with closure. All this seemed daft to Joe Pitts, the congressman for southeast Pennsylvania, who devised a bill to grant the Amish an exemption. Child-labour laws, his spokesman argues, were created to prevent children labouring in coal mines. “Now we have 14-year-old boys sweeping the floor in their uncle’s stores, but the owner is being fined $20,000. That’s real crazy.”
On January 23rd, 2004, President George Bush signed Mr Pitts’s bill into law. In the future, any sect whose established teachings forbid education after the eighth grade may put its children into wood workshops. They may not operate machines; they have to wear protective clothing, and adults must be there to supervise. But otherwise they are free.
A few Amish are worried. John Smith, who left the community 12 years ago, injured his back at work when he was 16 . He points out that some primitive mills own saws without protective covering. And he frets, too, that the team spirit that animates the Amish makes youngsters over-exert themselves. But his is a lonely voice. As all Amish know, if boys are not working they will just be out on the street, up to no good.
February 7th, 2004 (Pg.33.)
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