Child Labor vs. Tuna Fish

Today is the 100-year anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Filmmaker Harry Hanbury produced an amazing video for the National Consumers League that tells the story of the fire and how shockingly little progress we’ve made since then to protect workers in America.

Examples of our cockeyed priorities from the film:

A violation of the South Pacific Tuna Act … can be a $350,000 fine. If a dairy refuses to contribute to the fund that all dairies put into to promote milk and dairy products, the Agriculture Department can fine them $150,000. But if a worker dies, $7,000 is the maximum citation.

Lately, as I’ve been going around defending unions, I’ve heard from a number of critics that the United States no longer needs unions because we now have worker-safety protections, fewer workplace accidents, etc.

First of all, that argument is as ridiculous as saying that because, thanks to seat belts, we have fewer deaths in car crashes than 40 years ago, we don’t need seat belts or seat-belt laws anymore.

Second, the suggestion that the work of unions is done because worker safety is now so hallowed ignores the raw facts surrounding us in our economy today.

Writing for TAP, Nancy Goldstein cites the famous “revelation” by an executive at Harley Davidson that "because of high unemployment, management is using its leverage to get more hours out of workers."

Well at least there’s no more child labor, right? Uh, not exactly. Again, from the film:

There are between 400,000 and 500,000 children out there working in the fields. Under current U.S. law, children as young as 12 years old are allowed to work in agriculture with unlimited hours as long as it’s outside of school.

Some of the kids apparently use machetes and chainsaws. Here. In the United States. Think about that next time you take a bite of lettuce.

The film doesn’t say so, but it seems like if you put two and two together, then one workplace safety fine involving the death of one of these kids working in agriculture might literally amount to less than the fine for violating the Tuna Act.

On so many levels, a full 100 years after the birth of the modern worker-safety movement, we should be appalled.

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