Home / Business Focus
Sun, Oct 19, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Amish in conflict with labor laws

Afraid of the corrosive effects of the teenage leisure culture, the traditional communities want their adolescent males to lean a trade but others argue the dangerous occupation becoming a mainstay of the Amish economy is no place for children

By Steven Greenhouse  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BIRD-IN-HAND, PENNSYLVANIA

As economic pressures and a scarcity of farmland fuel a shift from farming to small business, the Amish see a fast-growing need to train teenage boys in woodworking. The Amish, who number more than 150,000 in rural communities in 25 states, predominantly Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, have persuaded several allies in the US Congress, including Senator Arlen Specter, to introduce a bill that would let Amish children aged 14 to 17 work in sawmills and woodworking factories. An Amish farmer with his team of mules navigates his harvesting rig in early morning traffic in Georgetown, Pennsylvania, last Tuesday.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Over the din of a buzzing band saw, the Amish furniture maker complained that Uncle Sam was out to get owners of woodworking shops like his simply for trying to teach Amish youths a trade.

The Amish just want to be let alone, he said, but the federal government is meddling in their lives and livelihoods by fining Amish sawmills and woodworking shops that employ teenagers, in violation of child labor laws.

"What are we supposed to do with them if they don't work here, have them stay on the street all day?" said the furniture maker, who insisted on anonymity. "I see what other teenagers do when I'm installing kitchens in people's homes. I see kids watching TV. They don't know what to do with themselves. Shouldn't they be occupied doing something worthwhile?"

Federal law has long barred children under 18 from working in sawmills and woodworking factories, because they are so dangerous. The Amish have upset opponents of child labor by pushing Congress for an exemption based largely on religious grounds.

Amish religious rules require children to leave school after eighth grade and then learn a trade. For generations of young men, that trade was farming: the austere horse-drawn buggies traveling the backroads of Bird-in-Hand, Paradise, Intercourse and other Amish communities here in eastern Pennsylvania once passed endless miles of pasture and plowed fields.

But today the roadsides are increasingly punctuated by sawmills and woodworking shops, scores of them, producing tables, chairs, beds, gazebos, entertainment centers. As economic pressures and a scarcity of farmland fuel a shift from farming to small business, the Amish see a fast-growing need to train teenage boys in woodworking. (Teenage girls, as always, learn skills like quilting or work in retail shops.)

The Amish, who number more than 150,000 in rural communities in 25 states, predominantly Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, have persuaded several allies in Congress, including Senator Arlen Specter, to introduce a bill that would let Amish children aged 14 to 17 work in sawmills and woodworking factories. Supporters say the bill, after falling short in previous Congresses, has a good chance of passing in this one, given strong backing within the ranks of the Republican majority.

Although those youths would remain barred from operating machinery, many children's advocates oppose the proposal, saying some would inevitably get too close to dangerous saws. They note that the fatality rate in sawmills is four times the rate throughout industry.

"This is the 21st century," said John R. Fraser, who headed the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division in the Clinton administration and opposed the Amish exemption when it was first proposed in the late 1990s. "We should certainly respect and tolerate religious and cultural beliefs that date from centuries ago, but it would be irresponsible and dangerous to begin to tolerate 17th- and 18th-century practices with respect to child labor."

But while child-labor opponents seek to keep teenagers away from hazardous machinery, the Amish have an additional goal: to keep those teenagers busy with gainful work and so away from hazardous enticements.

At Furnace Road Structures, just yards from dairy barns, cornfields and bright green spreads of alfalfa, a dozen workers use saws, drills and hydraulic-powered hammers to produce 2,000 utility sheds a year. The owner looks forward to the day when his son, now 11, can begin learning the trade.

This story has been viewed 7195 times.

Comments will be moderated. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned.

TOP top