People For the American Way

Conservatives’ savage child labor agenda wants kids working more for less

Op-Ed

First published in The Hill.

We tend to think of child labor under harsh conditions as a problem in developing countries, or in this country a century ago. So it was a shock to see this headline in the last couple of days: “Louisiana lawmakers vote to remove lunch breaks for child workers.

No lunch breaks? Child workers?  In America in 2024?

It turns out that not only does child labor underpin large segments of the U.S. economy — an ugly outgrowth of corporate greed and our broken immigration system — but conditions for minors in the workforce are actually getting worse.

The last few years have seen a spike in violations of child labor laws. The Department of Labor reports an 88 percent increase in these violations nationwide between 2019 and 2023. Some states wildly exceed that number; in Pennsylvania, violations rose 276 percent in one year from 2022 to 2023.

And in this climate, exploitation of immigrant kids of color runs rampant.

I recently had a chance to hear more from Kent Wong at the UCLA Labor Center, which is seriously alarmed about the child labor issue and calling for action.

Wong’s graduate students say their fieldwork brought them into contact with kids under 18 in incredibly hazardous jobs, including operating industrial lathe machines, working in a logging factory without masks or goggles and roofing work that required them to labor for 13 hours a day and carry 80-pound loads onto the roof on their shoulders.

Wong and his team also told me that, chillingly, this is happening at the same time there is a push in many states not to protect these kids but to relax child labor laws.

As in the case of Louisiana’s new law, this has been going on for over a year in mostly Republican-led states, with a dozen states affected so far. Often these laws increase the number of hours kids are permitted to work while lowering the amount they must be paid.

Worse, according to the Economic Policy Institute, this is part of “a coordinated campaign by conservative groups” that are going state-by-state with the ultimate goal of weakening protections at the federal level.

And the decades-old federal laws protecting child workers already have large gaps. In agriculture, for example, the law allows kids as young as 12 to work in the fields. That’s a loophole big enough to drive a combine harvester through.

The racist history of weak labor laws in certain sectors such as agriculture and domestic work is too long to go into here, but it exists. And the inequalities it’s always perpetuated are being reinforced today; 90 percent of kids working in agriculture are non-white.

Congress has taken steps to combat the problem, among other things calling for tougher penalties for child labor law violations. But the issue is so complex it requires solutions on multiple levels.

One issue is that too many employers just aren’t willing to pay adults a living wage that would allow them to support their kids.

Another is an immigration system where asylum claims are impossibly backlogged. This leaves people in limbo where they can’t get work permits or social services, making them desperate and easy to exploit. This is especially true for teenagers who come to the US alone.

The UCLA Labor Center wants to see a nationwide campaign to include stronger labor laws to restrict child labor abuse, stronger protections and a social safety net for immigrant workers, and greater corporate accountability.

Those are all really good ideas.

There’s just no way that we in 2024 should accept a status quo in which children are forced to do exhausting, dangerous, demanding jobs that threaten their lives and health — and disrupt their education so much that a low-wage future is all they’ll have. And we definitely shouldn’t allow industry forces to campaign to make things worse.

None of us wants that hardship for our own kids; it’s unconscionable to turn away when it’s someone else’s kid.

Tags:

child labor, Labor Department