Amid increasing child labor violations, lawmakers must act to strengthen standards
At a time when serious child labor violations are on the rise in hazardous meatpacking and manufacturing jobs, several state legislatures are weakening—or threatening to weaken—child labor protections. 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.
What this report finds: States across the country are attempting to weaken child labor protections, just as violations of these standards are rising. This report identifies bills weakening child labor standards in 10 states that have been introduced or passed in the past two years alone. It provides background on child labor standards and the coordinated push to weaken them, discusses the context in which these laws are being changed, and explains the connection between child labor and the United States’ broken immigration system. It also provides data showing that declines in labor force participation among young adults reflect decisions to obtain more education in order to increase their long-term employability and earnings, and that nearly all youth currently seeking work report being able to find it.
Why it matters: Federal laws providing minimum protections for child labor were enacted nearly a century ago, leading many to assume that children working in grueling and/or dangerous jobs was a thing of the past. In fact, violations of child labor laws are on the rise, as are attempts by state lawmakers to weaken the standards that protect children in the workplace.
What lawmakers can do about it: This report provides policy recommendations for lawmakers at both the federal and state levels. At the federal level, Congress should heed calls to increase penalties for child labor violations and address chronic underfunding of agencies that enforce labor standards, eliminate occupational carve-outs that allow for weaker standards in agricultural employment, pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, and implement immigration reforms that curb the exploitation of unauthorized immigrants and unaccompanied migrant youth. At the state level, lawmakers should eliminate subminimum wages for youth and raise the minimum wage, eliminate the two-tiered system that fails to protect children from hazardous or excessive work in agriculture, strengthen labor standards enforcement, and empower young people to build and strengthen unions.
Summary of findings
- Both violations of child labor laws and proposals to roll back child labor protections are on the rise across the country. The number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws increased 37% in the last year and at least 10 states introduced or passed laws rolling back child labor protections in the past two years.
- Attempts to weaken state-level child labor standards are part of a coordinated campaign backed by industry groups intent on eventually diluting federal standards that cover the whole country.
- Youth labor force participation declines over the past 20 years reflect that a steadily growing share of young people are choosing to complete high school and obtain additional education in order to increase their long-term employability and earnings. Putting off work in order to obtain more skills and education is a positive trend—for both individuals and the economy—not one that should be slowed or reversed.
- State and federal lawmakers must act to protect and advance the rights of workers of all ages and backgrounds while protecting poor and/or immigrant youth from exploitation. Policy recommendations include raising the minimum wage (and eliminating subminimum wages for youth), ending the two-tiered system of standards for agricultural and nonagricultural work, enforcing wage and hour laws, passing key immigration reforms, and supporting workers’ right to organize and form unions.
Read or download full report here.