Amish seek exemption from federal ban on child labor

A community known for insulating itself from the outside world is reaching out to lawmakers in an effort to preserve a centuries-old tradition of having children work.

About 25 Amish leaders met recently at a fire station with Rep. Joseph Pitts and Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republicans who support legislation that would allow Amish youths to work in limited, supervised settings.

The Amish leaders are seeking an exemption to federal child-labor protection laws barring teenagers from working in sawmills and woodworking shops. They began pushing for the change recently after the Labor Department started fining some of their businesses thousands of dollars for employing youths.

The Amish leaders told Messrs. Pitts and Specter they believe existing laws threaten their religious and work values. The lawmakers said one man who owns a leather shop said he was fined $8,000 because his 13-year-old daughter was caught working the cash register.

"We do not want children running dangerous machinery," Pitts said after the meeting. "This is about allowing youth to complete their classroom educations ... and to continue their educations as their fathers did - as trade apprentices."

Under Amish tradition, youngsters work in apprenticeship settings after the eighth grade. For years that didn't conflict with federal law because the livelihood of the Amish was rooted in agriculture, and farms are exempt from child-labor laws.

But with the growing costs of farming, many families have turned to woodworking and other small trades. Federal labor laws prohibit children younger than 16 from working in manufacturing operations and children younger than 18 from working in other hazardous occupations.

Legislation proposed by Pitts would let teenagers work in those settings but would also require additional antinoise and safety features.

Critics say the move would still put children in harm's way. The Labor Department notes that injuries at sawmills are as much as four times the national average. "While we respect deeply the culture and religious tradition of the Amish ..., we can't support a bill that exposes young workers to serious hazards in the workplace," says John Fraser, a child-labor-law specialist with the department.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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