States weaken child labor laws, putting kids at risk
By Brian Kabateck
“A troubling trend is brewing underneath America’s strong employment market: more children are working in dangerous jobs, violating the nation’s labor laws and putting their lives at risk,” CBS News reported in July.
In just ten months, the Labor Department reported, federal regulators discovered nearly 4,500 children working in employment situations that violated federal child labor laws, an increase of 44% over the previous year. Kids sometimes operate dangerous machinery, including meat-processing equipment, scorching hot ovens, or deep fryers. Children as young as 13 have been hired to clean “razor-sharp saws” with “caustic chemicals.” Some work overnight shifts.
Under the Biden-Harris administration, the Labor Department, in partnership with the Interagency Task Force to Combat Child Labor Exploitation, has stepped up efforts to “root out exploitative child labor” practices. “Child labor is an issue that gets to the heart of who we are as a country and who we want to be….[W]e believe that any child working in a dangerous or hazardous environment is one child too many,” said Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su.
However, several trends have converged to create a genuinely alarming situation.
First, employers nationwide have been scrambling to fill jobs in a tight labor market.
Further, policymakers point to a surge in unaccompanied minors entering the U.S.—over 400,000 since 2021. Although these kids enter the country alone, many go to live with family, friends, or sponsor families, where they face pressure to find work and make money.
At the same time, a movement that began taking shape a year ago, in the summer of 2022, has gained traction: several states, including Arkansas, Iowa, New Hampshire, and New Jersey, have significantly weakened child labor restrictions—for example, introducing new laws that make it easier for employers to hire kids under 16, or for a child of 14 to serve alcohol. Similar bills exist in Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and South Dakota.
A recent New York Times investigation called it “a new economy of exploitation”— the use of child migrant labor in “brutal,” “punishing,” often dangerous jobs in factories, assembly lines, plants, construction sites, hotels, industrial laundries, farms, and so forth across the U.S.
“This labor force has been slowly growing for almost a decade, but it has exploded since 2021, while the systems meant to protect children have broken down,” the study concluded.
A related New York Times investigation released this week called child labor using young migrants “an open secret.”
Numerous disturbing reports of gruesome injuries—even fatalities—have emerged in such jobs. Last year, 15-year-old Marcos Cux was maimed in rural Virginia at a Perdue chicken plant. This summer, Duvan Tomas Perez, a 16-year-old boy from Guatemala, was killed in a machine-related incident at a poultry plant where, under federal law, he was too young to work.
A brief history of child labor laws
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt, guarantees workforce protections for minors. These federal regulations made it illegal for kids under 18 to do many jobs and restricted their working hours. Until then, states had struggled to make legal progress toward keeping kids out of dangerous jobs in factories, mines, and other hazardous work environments.
A few years later, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the act. It continued to be the virtually unchallenged law of the land for 40 more years.
In 1982, President Ronald Reagan took steps toward rolling back federal protections for minors in the workforce—to allow longer hours for 14 and 15-year-olds working retail and fast food jobs and to be paid less than minimum wage. Child development specialists, labor unions, school teachers, parents, and Democrats joined forces to block the effort.
Still, child labor law violations rose in the 1980s, and in the 1990s, certain industry groups tried again, with limited legal success, to loosen protections. Over the last few decades, various conservative groups have continued to call for easing child labor restrictions.
The current movement to roll back protections, which picked up speed in 2022, is a Republican-led effort in each red state except N.J.
The high human cost of low-wage child labor
A recent article in The Conversation by U.S. News and World Report explains, “Many conservatives and business leaders have long argued, based on ideological and economic grounds, that federal child labor rules aren’t necessary.” They offer a variety of rationales, including the idea that work has moral value for youth, that the government shouldn’t determine who is allowed to work, and the notion that parents should be able to make decisions about their children. From the corporate perspective, there’s pressure to fill jobs.
However, as opponents of child labor point out, putting young children on the job or allowing them to work long hours is detrimental to health and development—causing them to miss school, lose crucial sleep, and putting them at risk of injury and job-related illness. As Human Rights Watch articulated in a 2016 letter to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, international studies have consistently shown that young children working and kids working long hours result in lower performance in school, less education, and reduced earning potential later on.
In June of this year, the Economic Policy Institute released a report calling for lawmakers to “strengthen standards” of child protection in the workforce. The report cited a dramatic rise in violations and legislative threats to protective policy.
“The trend reflects a coordinated multi-industry push to expand employer access to low-wage labor and weaken state child labor laws in ways that contradict federal protections in pursuit of longer-term industry-backed goals to rewrite federal child labor laws and other worker protections for the whole country. Children of families in poverty, and especially Black, brown, and immigrant youth, stand to suffer the most harm from such changes.”
With the government’s help, big business prioritizes profits over the protections for our most vulnerable young people.
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