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Dwayne David PaulMay 01, 2024
A photo of fast-food workers preparing bags for take out. The low-paying fast food industry has driven the surge in violations of child labor laws, with teens working longer and later than permitted under federal law. (iStock/halbergman)The low-paying fast food industry has driven the surge in violations of child labor laws, with teens working longer and later than permitted under federal law. (iStock/halbergman)

One of the largest child labor cases in U.S. history was settled last year, when Packers Sanitation Services of Kieler, Wis., paid $1.5 million in penalties after a Department of Labor investigation found that the company employed at least 102 children aged 13 to 17 to clean slaughterhouses. The company, which belongs to one of the nation’s wealthiest asset managers, Blackstone, had the children working overnight shifts and cleaning equipment such as back saws, brisket saws and cattle skull splitters.

In fact, reported child labor violations in the United States are at their highest in decades. In fiscal year 2023, the Department of Labor found 5,800 children working in violation of federal labor laws, a 14 percent increase from the previous year and an 88 percent increase from 2019. This is likely a vast underestimation, as the department reports only cases it has closed, and the government has not allocated sufficient resources for investigations. But in some states, the thinking seems to be that the way to “solve” this problem is not by following the law but by changing it.

On April 18, for example, a legislative committee in the Louisiana House of Representatives committee approved a measure that would cut mandatory meal breaks for teenage workers. State representative Roger Wilder, who is also a Smoothie King franchise owner, offered illuminating comments about the bill he sponsored, mocking critics as saying his intent was “to harm children.” “Give me a break,” he responded, adding, “These are young adults.” (But shouldn’t adults have lunch breaks as well?)

Since 2021, lawmakers in 28 states from Alabama to Massachusetts have introduced legislation to weaken child labor restrictions. In 2023, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and New York all began considering legislation that would expand youth employment opportunities in hazardous jobs; this year, Florida, Indiana and West Virginia have followed suit. Were these proposed bills to pass, as Iowa’s did, we could see a wave of teenagers engaging in professions such as construction, demolition and roofing.

Proponents of the rollbacks justify their efforts by saying they are protecting parental rights, shrinking bureaucracy and allowing “real world” experiences for young people. But allowing more children to work also dilutes the increased bargaining power that adult workers now have in tight labor markets, thus reducing employer expenditures and increasing profits.

The low-paying fast food industry has driven the surge in violations of child labor laws, with teens working longer and later than permitted under federal law—comprising the bulk of violations, according to a Washington Post investigation. Fast food employers may be struggling to hire because fewer people are desperate enough to choose their paltry wages with better options available. (Excluding the first 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic, national unemployment has been below 5 percent since 2016. In Wisconsin, it is now about 3 percent.)

The Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits children under 14 from working non-agricultural jobs, prohibits all children from working in hazardous jobs, and limits weekly hours and shifts based on age. But there are significant loopholes for farmwork, largely done by migrants, where children as young as 10 years old may work during non-school hours.

Much like the United States’ massive imprisoned workforce, child labor, whether legal or not, injects cheaper, non-unionized workers into the labor pool. In 34 states and the District of Columbia, youth can legally be paid less than the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour set for adults.

Furthermore, victims of youth labor exploitation often come from the economic underclass that the nation’s economy depends upon. According to a February 2024 report by the Inspector General’s office of the Department of Health and Human Services (the agency responsible for the welfare of unaccompanied migrant children), many of these children were found working in dangerous, often illegal conditions because of poor H.H.S. vetting practices.

It is great that we have laws meant to defend the rights of workers, but governance is about implementation and enforcement of the law. The government does not devote sufficient resources to enforce its labor laws. As a result, compliance and noncompliance are like poker: You play the odds. Businesses have great odds in favor of noncompliance. In the off chance that they get busted, they can chalk up the fine to the cost of doing business.

That is one reason why advocates like the Center for Law and Social Policy recommend that the maximum allowable penalty for child labor violations be increased from $15,000 to $1 million per child. This would improve the odds that egregious violators like Packers Sanitation Services would comply with the law. Were this the standard, the company would have paid $102 million for its heinous violations instead of $1.2 million.

Other solutions proposed by CLASP include closing loopholes for agricultural work, a frequent abuser of migrant children; added scrutiny on known abusers such as food manufacturers; and increased resources for Wage and Hour Division investigators. Colorado legislators building on that state’s 1971 child labor law, have proposed that fines collected be used to fund enforcement and have also proposed added protections for whistleblowers.

But in other states, the drive to weaken child labor laws continues. In 2023, a month after a 16-year-old boy died from injuries sustained at his industrial sawmill job, Wisconsin lawmakers proposed a bill that would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work without a state permit. In a co-sponsorship memorandum to their colleagues, the trio of lawmakers who introduced the bill to the legislature said its aim was “reducing red tape” that was preventing young teens from working. Fortunately, Wisconsin’s governor, Tony Evers, vetoed it this month.

We must resist the adultification of children and protect them from the unique harms that make them particularly vulnerable. We should also note that the Louisiana child labor bill is being considered among a suite of proposed legislation that would cut employer contributions to injured and unemployed workers.

As businesses continue to scour the production process for every possible cent of profit, no matter the human and ecological toll, we have to be capable of a moral and political double movement in our response to the erosion of child labor protections: Our laws should not degrade child workers because they should not degrade any worker.

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