Letter from a Former Amish Child Sawmill Worker to Congress
United States Senate
United States House of Representatives
October 21, 2003
Senators and Representatives:
I was born and raised Amish. Both my brother and I were forced at a very young age to work in a sawmill that was owned and operated by our Amish uncle. As soon as we left elementary school at age 14 it was decided by various leaders in the community that we would work on the sawmill because our family was poor and needed the money. We protested this decision, but our protests were overruled by the leaders in the Amish community.
The sawmill work was extremely dangerous and strenuous. We worked around saws, belts, cables and other power equipment used to move and cut logs. We rolled heavy logs onto carriages where they were clamped and cut. We lifted and carried boards weighing hundreds of pounds. Often times we had to step over tracks while carrying these boards, which created risks for slipping or twisting. My brother and I were lucky in that neither of us suffered a serious injury, but to this day I have back problems due to the two years of hard physical labor that I did on that sawmill.
My brother and I each earned less than minimum wage in these jobs, about $20 per day. The days were at least 8 hours long, and often 10 hours. We did not receive any of this money as it was paid directly to our parents.
Our experience in the sawmill convinced me that sawmills are completely inappropriate places for children to be working. There was nothing about our Amish upbringing that made the sawmill any less dangerous for us than it was for children of other religions. I am now 31 years old, a toolmaker and a father of two young children. There is no way I would allow my children to work in a sawmill and I am grateful for laws that prevent all children, regardless of faith, from working in sawmills.
For these reasons, I was shocked and dismayed when I read news articles stating that Congress was considering a change in the law that would allow Amish sawmill owners to employ Amish children as young as 14, while preserving child labor protections for children of other faiths. This would be a tragic mistake, as Amish children need these protections at least as much as non-Amish children. Amish children, because of their parents’ financial condition and the lack of educational opportunities, are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by sawmill owners. I had also thought that the U.S. Constitution would prohibit such blatant discrimination based solely on a child’s religion.
I do not think that the safety provisions included in the proposed legislation will make these jobs safe for children. Sawmills are inherently dangerous for children and cannot be made safer by simply limiting the use of power equipment or the distance between the children and such equipment, or requiring adult supervision I had all those things on the sawmill, and it was still much too dangerous for children.
I applaud those Senators and Representatives who are standing up for Amish children and ask you to please continue your opposition to this proposed legislation. I implore others who might be considering the proposal to reject it and maintain current child labor protections for Amish children as it is for any other child, regardless of religion. I speak for many Amish children who have no choice in this matter, because for them it is futile to speak out. Thank you for listening to my concerns.