Child labor is making an unwelcome comeback in the United States. Restaurants, amusement parks, industry groups, Republican and occasionally even Democratic politicians are citing the COVID-19-induced “labor shortage” as an excuse to hire teens to work harder and longer than ever before. In Wisconsin, which already replaced “child labor” with a more digestible term “employment of minors” in statutes, Republican senators approved a bill that would allow teens under the age of 16 to work 18 hours in a school week. A practice which destroys the lives of countless children in the Global South has returned to blight the “enlightened” West.
These reactionary assaults are not unprecedented. The 2010 mid-term elections, which saw the GOP take control of the House of Representatives and multiple state legislatures, emboldened Republican lawmakers and governors to erode child labor laws just like today. For example, Missouri State Senator Jane Cunningham introduced a bill in 2011 that would have removed prohibitions on employing children under 14 years old, as stated in Think Progress.
Many other GOP leaders had similar ideas. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke in Harvard during his 2011 presidential campaign, and pitched his solution for lifting inner-city children out of poverty. It was to relax “truly stupid” child labor laws. Additionally, “…schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors…and pay local students to take care of the school,” as noted in The Atlantic. Former Montana representative Denny Rehberg warned the Department of Labor (DOL) about proposals seeking to mitigate the risk of injury or death for children working in agriculture. They were unacceptable challenges to “the conventional wisdom of what defines a family farm in the [U.S].” In 2012, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, keen to win the war on obesity, declared that the DOL’s mission to limit perilous child labor on farms would ultimately make children less “active.”
The Obama Administration’s lackluster efforts to reinforce child labor laws in response to Republican attacks have mostly failed, especially in the farming sector. According to Human Rights Watch, children “as young as 12 can work unlimited hours on farms of any size with parental permission, as long as they don’t miss school.” Democrats Richard Durbin and David Cicilline introduced a bill to ban children from working in toxic tobacco fields in June (their third attempt in six years), but it has not been brought forward for a vote in Congress. Consequently, thousands of impoverished children still spend their summer holidays or entire school terms handling tobacco plants whilst suffering the horrendous symptoms of nicotine and pesticide poisoning. Furthermore, Professor of Social Work Susan Fineran discovered that 35% of students she interviewed in 2011 were sexually harassed while doing jobs during the school year.
The fact that powerful parental organizations seem not only unmoved by the normalization of child labor in the U.S., but even reject the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is deeply disturbing. Robert Kunzman, Professor of Education at Indiana University, explained that the U.S. is the only nation worldwide that signed but did not ratify the CRC. This was due in part to the relentless lobbying of the Home School Legal Defence Association (HSLDA) and affiliated networks like ParentalRights.org.
The HSLDA, which criticizes the CRC for its supposedly anti-family, anti-American, and anti-Christian values, wields enormous influence in the House of Representatives. Lawyer Michael Farris, an ardent Trump loyalist who tried to help the former president block the 2020 election results, according to The New York Times, founded the HSLDA to obstruct regulations on home schooling. Frightening HSLDA-led intimidation campaigns forced representatives in Arkansas, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to abandon bills or roll back laws that posed a “legislative threat” to homeschooling. There is widespread opposition to the CRC, which clearly states that all countries must “recognize” every child’s right “to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work… likely to be hazardous or to interfere with… education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.” This leaves thousands of American teens and children vulnerable to abusive labor practices.
The popularity of anti-vaccine mandate movements is another worrying development. People are constantly flooded with misinformation and propaganda telling them to distrust, disparage, or disdain any “intrusive” legislation from Washington -regardless of how essential most of these measures are to protecting their wellbeing. Legislation meant to strengthen existing child labor laws will have a very hard time getting past pro-corporate Supreme Court judges. Republican politicians, senators, CEOs, media conglomerates, and Christian fundamentalists are constantly railing against overreaching “big government” policies. The Democratic party, trade unions, and progressive forces in general need to come up with a winning strategy or appealing message to counter this extreme anti-regulation agenda.
Moreover, the DOL’s Wage and Hour division (WHD) is woefully ill-equipped to investigate suspected cases of child labor. Michael Hancock, an attorney who worked for two decades in the Department, told Frontline in 2018 that the WHD suffers from a chronic lack of resources and employs nowhere near the number of staff required to enforce the New Deal-era Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. “[T]here’s a thousand investigators in a country this large, with this many employers.” Additionally, victims of child labor, especially illegal immigrants fleeing Central America, are highly unlikely to report employers for fear of arousing unwanted attention from authorities. This makes the WHD’s job even more difficult.
The Atlantic reported in 2014 that the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), responsible for workplace inspections and deals with child labor violations, also faces severe underfunding and understaffing issues. OSHA revealed it employed far fewer safety inspectors in 2011 than in 1981—although the number of workplaces doubled over thirty years. These cutbacks had a detrimental impact in states like Minnesota, California, and Florida, where non-unionized construction sites hired underage labor with impunity. To make matters worse, officials in Missouri and other states sought to get rid of all funding for labor inspectors so that companies can go about their business with virtually no oversight.
OSHA’s inability to enforce rigorous workplace safety rules was most apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic last year. The Intercept reported that following years of President Trump trying to cut OSHA’s already meagre budget, labor inspectors struggled to hold companies accountable for not adhering to strict pandemic regulations. OSHA fined JBS, the world’s largest meat processing giant, a measly $15,615 for not providing “employment or a place of employment which were free from recognized hazards.” This penalty is the equivalent of small change for a company which earned more than $51 billion in a single year. OSHA also fined a pork processing plant Smithfield Foods in South Dakota for COVID-19 related negligence. The company refused to pay the fine.
It remains to be seen if the Biden Administration will restore OSHA’s credibility. As the American Bar Association argued, President Biden could adopt more confrontational tactics vis-à-vis uncooperative employers to flaunt his progressive credentials and placate the left wing of the Democratic party. He may even push his OSHA team to copy the Obama Administration’s “regulation by public shaming” method to embarrass employers into compliance. Yet naming and shaming companies who exploit children is not going to end child labor in America. The WHD and OSHA must become forces to be reckoned with once again. This will only happen when they possess the means to recruit enough staff to thoroughly monitor every workplace in the nation.
Ordinary Americans can also play a key role in fighting the proliferation of child labor. As agricultural health and safety expert Athena Ramos argues, unionized adult workers should raise the issue whenever they confront employers during grievance and arbitration procedures. Parents, families, neighbours, and concerned citizens must speak out about child labor in their communities via social media, podcasts, radio shows, and local or national news outlets. Journalists should devote more resources, time, and print to exposing the brutal reality of child labor and what it reveals about contemporary American society. Attorneys could lend their services to child labor victims and help their relations file complaints and claims of human rights abuses against businesses or companies.
Finally, it is the U.S. government’s duty to carefully inform the American public that child labor laws are not an infringement on personal liberties or a prelude to tyranny. They are necessary safeguards which allow children to complete their education without the added burden of strenuous, monotonous, poorly paid, and often dangerous jobs. The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wryly remarked that youth is wasted on the young. Our descendants certainly will be wasting their youth toiling in factories or sweatshops if we continue to ignore and implicitly tolerate child labor.
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