You may think that child labor was abolished a century ago, at least in the United States. That was never quite true. The Fair Labor Standards Act, passed during the New Deal, outlawed “oppressive child labor” but exempted agricultural work from many of its restrictions, which, in the decades since, has left hundreds of thousands of children in the fields. In every industry, enforcement of the law has been uneven. States have always been free to strengthen protections, which some did, but challenges to the federal standards have been rare. The Reagan Administration, in its pro-business zeal, proposed lowering the standards, but abandoned the idea under fire from teachers, parents, unions, and Democratic lawmakers armed with Dickens references.
Today, however, child labor in America is on the rise. The number of minors employed in violation of child-labor laws last year was up thirty-seven per cent from the previous year, according to the Department of Labor, and up two hundred and eighty-three per cent from 2015. (These are violations caught by government, so they likely represent a fraction of the real number.) This surge is being propelled by an unhappy confluence of employers desperate to fill jobs, including dangerous jobs, at the lowest possible cost; a vast wave of “unaccompanied minors” entering the country; more than a little human trafficking; and a growing number of state legislatures that are weakening child-labor laws in deference to industry groups and, sometimes, in defiance of federal authority.
In the past two years, according to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute, at least fourteen states have enacted or proposed laws rolling back child-labor protections. Typically, the new laws extend work hours for minors, lift restrictions on hazardous work, lower the age at which kids can bus tables where alcohol is served, or introduce new sub-minimum wages. In Iowa, a new law allows children as young as fourteen to work in industrial laundries, and, with approval from a state agency, allows sixteen-year-olds to work in roofing, excavation, demolition, the operation of power-driven machinery, and other dangerous occupations. Jennifer Sherer, a co-author of the E.P.I. report, said, “Iowa’s new law contains multiple provisions that conflict with federal prohibitions on ‘oppressive child labor.’ ” It also limits employer liability for the injury, illness, or death of a child on the job. Adolescents are almost twice as likely as adults to be injured at work.
The reasons offered to justify these initiatives often emphasize child welfare. In Ohio, where Republican legislators are also proposing weaker laws, a spokesman for the Ohio Restaurant Association testified that extending work hours for minors would cut down on their screen time. (The lawmakers offered a concurrent resolution urging Congress to lower federal child-labor standards to conform with Ohio’s proposed rules.) Arkansas’s Republican governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, recently signed a law ending a requirement that fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds obtain a parent’s consent and a state permit before starting work. Linking the bill, strangely, to parental rights, the governor’s office called the permit “an arbitrary burden on parents.”
“It was a one-page form,” Nina Mast, the other co-author of the E.P.I. report, said. “It contained basic information and informed parents of a child’s rights. Removing it eliminates a paper trail, makes enforcement and monitoring much more difficult. It opens the door to exploitation.” Sherer said that a lobbying template being used in state legislatures to gut child-labor laws had been provided by conservative groups such as the Foundation for Government Accountability, a think tank based in Florida.
Many employers are clearly not waiting for the laws to change. Fast-food chains, which rely on teen-age workers, seemingly treat fines for violating the laws as a cost of doing business. (It’s the franchisees who actually break the laws, while the parent corporations pay lobbyists to help loosen them.) In February, the Labor Department announced that it had found more than a hundred children between the ages of thirteen and seventeen working in meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses, in eight states, for Packers Sanitation Services, one of the nation’s largest food-sanitation companies. The facilities themselves are owned by major corporations, including Tyson Foods and JBS. (All three companies denied that they had engaged in any wrongdoing.) The children worked overnight shifts at such jobs as cleaning bone saws and head splitters with hazardous chemicals. At least three were injured. Packers, which is owned by Blackstone, the world’s largest private-equity firm, paid a civil fine of a million and a half dollars.
Social-service agencies were frustrated that the Labor Department referred none of the children from Packers to them. The Times reported that some had found jobs at other plants. It was clear, in any case, from a range of reports, that they were all, or nearly all, drawn from the great underage labor pool of children who have crossed the border in recent years. “Unaccompanied minors” who arrive from non-neighboring countries—which, in effect, means Central America—are permitted to remain in the U.S. and are remanded to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, which delivers them as quickly as possible to a sponsor while asylum applications are processed. The asylum processing typically takes years.
In 2022, a hundred and thirty thousand unaccompanied minors entered the H.H.S. system, nearly half of them from Guatemala. In the rush to house such numbers, sponsors are barely vetted. Some are relatives, some are traffickers, some are a combination. Follow-up by H.H.S. has been tenuous—the agency loses track of a huge number of children within a month of their placement. But one thing is certain: although these kids, like all children, are required to go to school—until the age of sixteen in some states, eighteen in others—and many want nothing more, they also need to work. There are debts to be repaid, living expenses, and remittances to be sent home. If employers ask for an I.D. or a Social Security number, faked documents can be easily bought; many employers do not ask.
There are signs that the Biden Administration has begun to face the child-labor crisis—the announcement of a crackdown, a request to Congress to increase penalties against employers. And yet strengthening enforcement when the budget of the regulatory state is shrinking under pressure from the debt-ceiling negotiations seems unlikely. Republicans say that the problem is an insecure border. Certainly, crumbling economies in Central America intensify this crisis. But the immediate problem is a broad indifference to the well-being of children when profits are at stake.