Guest Commentary: “When Children Work; A Dialogue”

By Paul Petersen

[Paul Petersen is the founder and president of A Minor Consideration, a non-profit advocacy group that seeks to protect the welfare of juvenile performers. Mr. Petersen was a prominent child star himself, most famously as “Jeff Stone” on the long-running TV comedy, “The Donna Reed Show.” The following commentary, also posted on his website, is inspired by the hearings this week on proposed child labor legislation in Pennsylvania, where “Jon & Kate Plus 8” was filmed. The legislation proposed  by State Representative Tom Murt defines reality television and would require all minors to have work permits issued by the state Department of Labor and Industry to ensure all adequate provisions have been made for the minor’s educational instruction, supervision, health and welfare. The bill also provides that minors can only work between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., and sets guidelines for the amount of hours, work, recreation, school and activities per day. A certified teacher would be required on the set of any production to monitor working conditions, and the bill would require 15 % of a child actor’s gross earning be set aside by the employer in a trust.]

Imagine if your boss unilaterally declared that your time spent in a commercial workplace wasn’t work at all but merely “participation.” That might be said of the drug store cat, or a barnyard animal, but to say that about a living, breathing, conscious human being passes all understanding. Yet that is precisely the position taken by reality show Producers and the Networks that broadcast commercial products called “reality shows” that feature children.

In the union world of traditional production, there has long been a recognition that the laws protecting children may lag behind reality, and the language in the Basic Agreements cover the potential for a lack of “coverage:” i.e. “In the absence of law, or where there is a conflict in child labor laws, the strictest interpretation shall apply.”

Here’s the problem. Reality shows are invariably ‘non-union,’ and they are deliberately produced in states that have either lax or non-existent child labor laws for entertainment. Remember, kids in entertainment are exempt from Federal child labor law!

Historically, the acknowledged tension between employers and employees, or labor and management, has a well-known and fundamental reality: Employers (management) will always seek the lowest cost of labor. Employees (labor) will always demand levels of compensation according to their perceived “value” to the employers.

The abundance of evidence tells us that in the absence of “standards” there is a tendency for employers to define the workplace (and the role of their employees) to their advantage, and today’s “reality shows” involving children are a glaring example of this mind-set.

Common sense and basic labor law tells us; “the continuing contributory presence of a person (or a child) in the work place constitutes employment.” In the case of a so-called reality show the children, generally under the presumed authority of their parents, are under “the direction and control” of someone other than themselves, and when those undefined “other someone’s” are being compensated, so, too, should the children’s contribution be monetarily recognized. This is the position the State of New Mexico belatedly declared after the deliberate deception of “Kid Nation.”

In the Common Law, children are the property of their parents who, in law, “are entitled to the custody, income and services” of the child. The presumption is that parents will not willfully take advantage of their child’s vulnerability, and their inability to disobey. Sadly, the reality faced by children in today’s world is at odds with this presumption. Parents get up to all sorts of mischief, some of it deadly. Clinging to a medieval notion is absurd when 3 to 5 children are murdered by their parents every day of every year. Every week one teenager dies while working on the “family farm.” When it comes to money, especially in a shared work environment (whose true nature is defined by people and companies that have a monetary interest in diminishing the worth of the contributory child) the idea that children have nothing better to do with their time than “participate in a commercial enterprise” is indefensible.

Furthermore, a core principle shared by all Western societies is that “the person who does the work should own the money their labor produces.” Ever since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution the “workplace” as experienced by most wage earners, has been recognized as being distinct from hunter-gathering cultures or the “family farming” agricultural communities.

The general understanding of “parental obligations” toward their children is that they (and not their children) provide the basics…i.e., food, clothing, shelter and education…and while it is also generally accepted that children should contribute to the family’s welfare, there is an ill-defined but tangible point where a child’s income fundamentally alters the very definition of being a dependant child.

The entertainment industry has long recognized the conflicts and dangers of employing minors, and the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) and the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) are strong supporters of responsible employment practices when it comes to children. And they’ve put their money where there beliefs are.

The problem confronting the industry is that “reality shows” are, by their nature, considered a different production specie. It’s a fallacy. All of us know that seven global conglomerates dominate the industry. It is certainly not in children’s interests to allow global conglomerates to unilaterally define the workplace when it comes to popular entertainment, let alone for kids to suffer global tabloid press coverage. The textile and shoe manufacturing conglomerates didn’t get away with it. We don’t permit the meat packing industry to define the workplace, and the coal mining industry has prohibited children for two hundred years. All of us…the unions and the major producers…recognize that the rules for children are different. Reality shows are packaged and sold, produced based on a preconceived concept that often employs writers, professional filmmakers, and casting directors. All of the people involved in production, from film crew to publicists, are under the direction and control of a corporate entity.

When a cast member of the “Survivor” reality show fell into a blazing fire pit on a remote beach, no one lifted a finger to help the endangered performer. When Tom Forman, the producer of the series, was asked why even the camera man didn’t drop his camera to help, he replied: “If the camera man had stopped filming to help I would have fired him on the spot.”

Is this what children employed on a reality show can expect if danger threatens? Is this acceptable to America’s audience? Education is mandatory in America, but set-teachers are not part of the production crew in reality show production. Age-appropriate time limits are a commonplace feature on union productions using kids, but not on reality shows. Financial remuneration (a salary) is an accepted part of all television production, but not with reality shows. Court-approved contracts are a reality for all minors employed on long-running series, and in California, the Coogan Accounts are mandatory. If you pretend that kids in reality shows are just “participants,” all the rules go out the window…and with them, any semblance of responsibility and accountability.

The Learning Channel (TLC) states that it has earned $200 million dollars thanks to five years of “Jon & Kate Plus 8.”

Honestly, is it asking too much for the kids in their reality shows to be afforded the same corporate protections as TLC employee’s children who participate at the day care center in the TLC headquarters building in Silver Spring, Maryland? When danger threatened these TLC kids recently,  they were evacuated according to a well thought-out plan. TLC should do no less for the kids whose images they broadcast and profit from every day.

This is why we’re in Pennsylvania next week and supporting Representative Murt’s legislation.

Paul Petersen

2 thoughts on “Guest Commentary: “When Children Work; A Dialogue”

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Peterson’s comments. Children, whether working in a big budget movie or a cable television reality show, need to be represented by those who have their best interest at heart – unfortunately, not always the parent – and a guarantee that the fruits of their labor be protected from others.

  2. Dear Jack: Sorry I missed this post in my back mail until now. As you’ve probably guessed, I’ve been right on top of this one. A good number of my online associates- along with Paul, Alison Arngrim and Jon Provost- were present at the Harrisburg meeting presided over by State Representative Thomas Murt. The presentations were excellent and the results, I sincerely hope, will resonate beyond that state itself. The key to that success is getting people to understand that these labor issues (and the adjacent issues of decency with children in general by the entertainment industry) are not confined to child actors alone, but have an impact on the status and moral climate that should be afforded to all children in this country. These issues will be further addressed in Atlanta (another key area in these questions) on October 8th in a gala event sponsored by Dr. Ted Baehr and his Christian Film & Television Commission.

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