GUEST COMMENTARY - Two recent exposés about child labor in the United States highlight how prevalent the once-outlawed practice has become. In February, the New York Times published an extensive investigative report by Hannah Dreier about scores of undocumented Central American children who were found to be working in food processing plants, construction projects, big farms, garment factories, and other job sites in 20 states around the country. Some were working 12 hours a day and many were not attending school.
A second story, revealed in a press release in early May by the U.S. Department of Labor, found more than 300 children working for three McDonald’s franchises operating dozens of restaurants in Kentucky. The children were working longer hours than legally permitted and tasked with jobs that were prohibited. Some were as young as 10 years old.
If such stories are becoming increasingly common, it is not because there is more attention being paid. An Economic Policy Institute (EPI) analysis found a nearly fourfold increase in labor violations involving children from 2015 to 2022.
While this says volumes about existing loopholes in labor law and enforcement, and about the state of the U.S. capitalist economy more broadly, there is another, even more disturbing dimension to child labor in the U.S. Lawmakers, mostly Republican ones, increasingly want to deregulate laws governing children in the workplace. According to EPI, “at least 10 states introduced or passed laws rolling back child labor protections in the past two years.”
Among them is Arkansas, whose GOP governor is the former White House press secretary under Donald Trump, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. In March, Sanders signed a new bill removing employer requirements to verify the age of children as young as 14 before hiring them, calling such protections “burdensome and obsolete.” Her Republican colleagues in Iowa and Wisconsin have passed similar laws. In Ohio, one Democrat even joined in to loosen the state’s child labor laws.
It’s already legal for teenagers to take on certain types of summer jobs and paid internships. In an ideal world, such employment can offer them valuable work experience in a safe environment and allow them to earn extra spending money to save up for nice things. Indeed, children from privileged backgrounds have traditionally been able to land such jobs over their less privileged counterparts, using family connections.
Republicans are invoking such benign jobs as babysitting or lifeguarding to claim that deregulation will help kids earn money to save up for a car or prom dress. But children’s well-being is not driving their desires to ease child labor laws. These lawmakers are hardly concerned about making it easier for teens to deliver newspapers or wash cars during summer vacation. We would be hard-pressed to imagine their 16-year-old children or grandchildren serving alcohol for six hours a day at a bar past 9 p.m. on a school night and letting the bar owner off the hook if that child gets injured on the job—which is what Iowa Republicans have now legalized.
What they appear to care about is businesses having a larger pool of vulnerable workers to exploit at a time when worker demands for higher wages and better working conditions are rising and strike activity has increased. Who’s more vulnerable than children, particularly undocumented and low-income ones?
The idea to undo labor laws protecting children goes back at least a decade when conservatives began dreaming about reviving the good old days of children being able to legally work tough jobs. The Cato Institute, a right-wing think tank that ought to be credited with saying the unthinkable out loud, published an essay in 2014 unironically titled, “A Case Against Child Labor Prohibitions.” In it, writer Benjamin Powell invokes an idea couched in the world of Charles Dickens’s dystopian literature: “Families who send their children to work in sweatshops do so because they are poor and it is the best available alternative open to them.” He added that the type of labor restrictions that protect children “only limits their options further and throws them into worse alternatives,” and that apparently “sweatshops play an important role” in the economic growth of societies.
Another right-wing think tank called the Acton Institute, one that obscures its agenda in religious thought, declared in 2016 that “Work is a gift our kids can handle.” The story is accompanied by a photo of a smiling, well-dressed, young white boy tending horses on a farm—a wholesome fantasy that is at odds with the abuse that Human Rights Watch researcher Margaret Wurth documented in a report on child labor in the U.S.: “a 17-year-old boy who had two fingers sliced off in an accident with a mowing machine. A 13-year-old girl felt so faint working 12-hour shifts in the heat that she had to hold herself up with a tobacco plant. An eighth grader said his eyes itched and burned when a farmer sprayed pesticides in a field near his worksite.” Wurth points out the “racist impacts” of labor law loopholes particularly on “Latinx children and families.”
The conservative organization Foundation for Government Accountability has also played a central role, taking the lead in convincing GOP lawmakers to loosen child labor laws. A Washington Post report credits the group for helping push through Arkansas’ new law and for lobbying Iowa and other states to do the same.
Now, advocates of fair labor standards are aghast, watching in horror at the Republican-led rollback of laws protecting children. Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa AFL-CIO, told the Guardian newspaper, “It’s just crazy to me that we are re-litigating a lot of things that seem to have been settled 100, 120, or 140 years ago.”
Indeed, the past is precisely where grim lessons abound about how children suffer when there are no labor laws protecting them. One history article written in 2020 about the painstaking movement to regulate child labor begins optimistically: “At least in the United States, child labor is almost exclusively a thing of the past.” Stemming from a medieval mindset that children were the patriarchal property of their fathers, the young were pushed into servitude en masse during the Industrial Revolution where their small size and nimble fingers were as beneficial to employers as their inability to demand high wages or organize their workplace.
It was through the critical narrative work of a teacher and photographer named Lewis Hine, whose never-before-seen images of abused child workers between 1908 and 1924 helped to move public opinion, that labor laws were eventually changed. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act finally outlawed most child worker abuses at a federal level.
There was a time in the U.S. when, just a few decades ago, child labor was seen as a global problem of poorer nations where exploited children worked in unimaginable conditions making products for wealthy Westerners. A 1996 Life Magazine article famously offered a horrifying glimpse into the life of a Pakistani child making soccer balls for Nike. Child workers in Bangladeshi sweatshops making designer clothing spurred activism in the U.S. against such exploitation.
Garnering less attention were the loopholes in U.S. federal law allowing for child labor in the agricultural industry where hundreds of thousands of mostly immigrant children were found to be working on tobacco farms and elsewhere.
Rather than close these loopholes, like Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin wants to do with her newly introduced Child Labor Prevention Act, Republicans want to throw them wide open.
Debra Cronmiller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, said, “The notion that we would be solving some economic turmoil by allowing the expansion of child labor hours, is at best, ridiculous, and at worst, very detrimental to young people.” There is no labor shortage. There is simply an unwillingness on the part of profit-seeking companies to pay workers enough.
Republicans claim they care about protecting children. But their actions speak louder than words: they have made it easier for mass shooters to kill children in schools, and they have attacked the rights of LGBTQ children to play sports, to use the bathrooms of their choice, to access gender-affirming care, and to learn about their community. They have barred children from learning accurate history about racism and white supremacy and unleashed police into schools in spite of evidence that school cops are targeting Black and Brown children.
Seen as part of this larger trend, the push to overturn laws protecting labor abuses of children is perfectly in line with the GOP’s agenda to harm kids.
(Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization. This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.)