Child labor making a come back – by Deborah Levine

Originally published in The Chattanooga Times Free Press   

Have we time-traveled back a century when child labor was a thing? That’s what I first thought when I heard that a food sanitation company was being sued for illegally employing over 100 children ages 13 – 17. The kids cleaned razor-sharp saws with caustic chemicals while working overnight shifts at 13 meat processing facilities in eight states including Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee and Texas.

Unfortunately, we’re seeing a global resurgence of this repugnant practice. Between 2017 and 2021, there was an increase of 8.4 million in child labor globally and a 6.5 million increase in children engaged in hazardous work. Covid has made matters worse forcing impoverished families to put their children into labor. The U.S. is not immune to these trends.

Understand that there have always been exceptions to child labor laws, and a lower minimum wage for children. Unsurprisingly, the Association of Farmworker Opportunity programs reports that the U.S. has about 500,000 child farmworkers, many of whom are migrants who started working at age 8, often with 10 hour days. This isn’t illegal despite a Government Accountability Office report suggesting that 100,000 child farmworkers are injured on the job every year and that children account for 20 % of farming fatalities.

But the reality today is even uglier. Many American companies are now exploiting loopholes in child labor laws, sometimes skirting the law altogether. Last year, the Labor Department sued a Hyundai supplier for having workers as young as 12. That food sanitation company was fined the maximum civil penalty allowed by US federal law, $15,138 for each minor-aged employee, for a total of $1.5 million. Getting sued is increasingly common, but that doesn’t seem to be motivating best practices towards child labor. Many fast-food employers violate limits protecting childrens health and education. Chipotle has paid more than $9 million based on thousands of child labor violations and the Massachusetts attorney generals office found violations at Burger King, Dunkin and Wendys.

Whats going on here? The Washington Post reports that “In a tight labor market, some states look to another type of worker: Children. Bills advancing in the Iowa and Minnesota state legislatures would roll back child workplace protections to address worker shortages.” 

Some states have introduced bills to loosen child labor law regulations around age and workplace safety protections in some of the countrys most dangerous workplaces. Not all states have been successful, yet. Wisconsins legislators lifted restrictions on work hours during the school year, but Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the legislation. Ohio’s state senators tried to do the same, but the measure didn’t pass in the legislatures lower chamber.

Yet some states have been successful. New Jersey enacted a law last year expanding the hours teens are allowed to work when school is not in session. Other states are working on making child labor legal. Minnesotas legislators proposed a bill would permit 16 year-olds to work construction jobs. Iowa legislators would allow 14 year-olds to work in meatpacking plants.

These bills are being proposed largely by conservative legislators, bent on assisting businesses at the cost of these children. Weakened labor laws diminish the future of these children. A Massachusetts survey found that teens had 42% more emergency room visits than adults. Further, the education gains of the 20th century came from child labor restrictions and compulsory schooling. 

So don’t be taken in by words like those of the food sanitation company stating that it follows the law to the letter and has “…a zero-tolerance policy against employing anyone under the age of 18”. And lets not move backwards by allowing legislation easing child labor laws. Make your voice and vote heard!


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