The Who and Why Behind the Push to Gut Child Labor Laws

By Conor Gallagher

Nearly century-old protections for child labor are eroding across the country as violations of child labor laws rise, and state lawmakers, pushed by big business, move to weaken the standards that protect children in the workplace.

While the violations increase, so have the media stories in recent months, but none dig into the question of why there is a nationwide push to get children to work now.

The Washington Post reveals how the system is predictably brutal:

The New York Times has run two recent long pieces on child immigrant labor – one in February and the other on April 17 –  noting that “this labor force has been slowly growing for almost a decade, but it has exploded since 2021, while the systems meant to protect children have broken down.”

Oddly enough, it only mentioned the pandemic in passing – a total of five times, always citing it as the reason the children left home for work in the US. Nothing about labor shortages in certain industries and nothing about employers’ efforts to keep wages down.

The Times seems to believe the growth in child labor is just some sort of accident:

The growth of migrant child labor in the United States over the past several years is a result of a chain of willful ignorance. Companies ignore the young faces in their back rooms and on their factory floors.

But the evidence shows it is anything but willful ignorance; business is actively seeking to weaken child labor laws and employ children.

Who Is Pushing the Recent Wave of Legislation?

In March Arkansas eliminated the state requirement to verify that children are at least 16 before they receive a job. Many more states are considering similar legislation. From The Guardian: 

In Ohio, lawmakers are considering a bill that would let 14- and 15-year-old children work year-round until 9pm each day. The bill has bipartisan support and includes a resolution that would ask the federal government to change its child labor laws.

In Iowa, legislative proposals would allow children at least 15 years old to sell alcohol and children at least 14 years old to work specific jobs in meatpacking plants. The Iowa bill would also protect companies from liability if a child got sick or injured or died while at work.

Lawmakers in Minnesota, which is led by a Democratic governor, Tim Walz, have filed a bill that would permit children aged 16 and 17 to work construction jobs.

It’s not just in the US, either. To the north, Canada is also turning to child labor:

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the “attempts to weaken state-level child labor standards are part of a coordinated campaign backed by industry groups intent on eventually diluting federal standards that cover the whole country.” Some of the other supporters are Americans for Prosperity; Home Builders Association of Iowa; Iowa National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB); Iowa Farm Equipment Dealers Association; Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI); and the Iowa Hotel and Lodging Association, and the National Restaurant Association.

They’re pushing such laws because they want more low-cost labor. Take the example of Nebraska. Lawmakers there introduced a bill to pay two groups of young workers below the state’s current minimum wage. More:

 In 2022, Nebraska voters approved a ballot measure to increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2026, starting with an increase from $9 to $10.50 in January 2023 (Mast, Woods, and Sherer 2022). In direct opposition to this change, the bill proposes that 14- to 17-year-olds be paid only $9, with a gradual increase to $10 by 2026. The bill also proposes paying “training wages” to 18- and 19-year-olds of $9.25 an hour, increasing to $10 by 2026 and then remaining at 75% of the minimum wage thereafter. In defense of his proposal to pay young workers a subminimum wage, State Senator Tom Briese (R-Albion) stated that “we shouldn’t be making it harder for employers to hire young folks”

The Business Model Requires Cheap, Exploitable Labor 

According to research from the University of California, Davis, by the end of last year there were close to 2 million fewer working-age immigrants in the United States than there would have been if pre-pandemic immigration continued unchanged. From CNN:

In March 2020, President Trump invoked Title 42 – a law enacted during the pandemic to prevent the spread of Covid – that has kept migrants and would-be asylum seekers out of the country.

But the decrease in legal immigration over the last two years has hurt American businesses. Especially in industries that require lower skilled labor: construction, agriculture, and hospitality.

The lack of available workers has pushed wages higher.

The biggest impact comes to industries like construction, agriculture, and especially hospitality – which are reliant on immigrant workers. Those types of industries had higher rates of unfilled jobs last year – adding to existing labor shortages, according to UC Davis research. There are currently 10.3 million open jobs in the US – 377,000 in construction and 1.6 million in hospitality.

As we see above, those same industries are the ones now pushing to weaken child labor laws.

Congress could be increasing penalties for child labor violations, upping funding for agencies that enforce labor standards, eliminating occupational carve-outs that allow for weaker standards in agricultural employment, passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, and implementing immigration reforms that curb the exploitation of unauthorized immigrants and unaccompanied migrant youth.

Instead it is now working to pass “The Essential Workers for Economic Advancement Act,” which would create a new visa program for workers in industries like hospitality.

The graph above highlights the issue, but unless the Fed can effectively destroy the economy, there’s a big reason it’s not expected to rebound anytime soon.

What Else About That Labor Shortage?

Last September the National Bureau of Economic Research released numbers that showed that on top of the (at that time)  quarter-million people of working age who died from coronavirus, at least twice that number across all ages have permanently disappeared from the workforce.

More recently the Brookings Institution estimates that “the labor force is about 900,000 people smaller than one would have expected, primarily because of deaths related to COVID-19 and reduced immigration.”

And that doesn’t even take into account Long Covid, which up to 30 percent of Americans develop after infection. A recent study by the New York State Insurance Fund found that roughly 18 percent of people with Long Covid didn’t return to work for more than a year.

Brookings added that, “Moreover, even if immigration fully rebounds that effect will likely be persistent because some of the people who died from COVID-19 would have been expected to remain in the labor force for decades to come.” Brookings concludes:

Ultimately, the amount of goods and services the U.S. produces will likely have to adjust to align with a smaller labor force. However, such challenges with regard to the size of the labor force would be mitigated if policies and other structural changes increased participation rates.

Well, one policy to mitigate such challenges would be to get more children working. That too will have long term effects. The Economic Policy Institute notes that the “youth labor force participation declines over the past 20 years reflect that a steadily growing share of young people are choosing to complete high school and obtain additional education in order to increase their long-term employability and earnings.”

But there are now unexplained drops in public schools enrollment. From K-12 Dive:

More than 240,000 students have unaccounted absences — or are missing from public school rolls — according to an analysis of publicly available enrollment data in 21 states by The Associated Press, Stanford University’s Big Local News project and Stanford education professor Thomas Dee.

The research dug into the public school enrollment drop brought on by the pandemic between 2019-20 and 2021-22, looking to see where those students went. While the increasing homeschooling population and decreasing size of the school-aged population contributed to roughly a quarter of the decline, the analysis found more than a third of the “missing” students are left unexplained — even when considering the small increase in private school enrollment.

Maybe the kids had to get to work to start paying off their school lunch debt.


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  1. Eclair

    Just heading off the inevitable comment, (not by an NC regular, thank heavens) about a childhood spent on the farm, slopping the pigs, weeding the corn, picking strawberries, milking cows, splitting logs, baling hay, from sun-up to sun-down, seven days a week (with time out for church service on Sunday morning), and it didn’t do me any harm.

    Yeah, and you weren’t working for a soul-less multi-national corporation, who viewed you as a cheap and expendable means of production, on a par with the caged chickens and crated sows in their hell-on-earth CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.)

    And, we gotta ban abortions, cause the corporate masters need all the tiny workers they can get. Like the pigs and chickens, their lives will be short and ugly.

    PS. Your stints mowing neighborhood lawns or delivering newspapers doesn’t compare to children working on factory assembly lines (does the US even have factories any more?) or in slaughter houses.

    1. The Rev Kev

      Re those people saying how they had it so tough when they were kids. Something like the Four Yorkshiremen perhaps? (3:13 mins)

      To tell you the truth, I find it hard to read that they are bringing back child labour again. This is the sort of stuff we read about in school and how terrible it was and how cruel and ignorant the people were that let this happen to children. And how too that people fought to end this practice and to get those kids into school so that they would have a chance at making a life for themselves. And now? I am just waiting to read how they have changed the laws so that children can once more work in underground mines.

    2. t

      A tale as old as time – the one child who was “allowed” to get an education because there was enough of a family labor pool to maintain without that one. Or, the boys who enlisted as soon as they could pass as legally old enough to flee the farm, or the family restaurant, or whatever business they had been unpaid labor since they could walk. And never mind effectively selling off daughters into bad marriages. (If nothing else, the price of one leas mouth to feed.)

      Often builds the kind of character that leads to getting as far away as you can. As soon as you can.

    3. eg

      I actually DID work in a slaughterhouse, but not until I was 16 (part time during the school year/full time in the summer). I would never recommend it to anyone, although in my case it did give me an object lesson in what life might be like if I didn’t get an education. I wouldn’t want that experience for my own children, and I think the people who claim otherwise are simply weirdos.

      None of which is a rationale for systematic exploitation of underage labor. I certainly wouldn’t want my children to have the same experience and I think those who suggest otherwise are simply weirdos.

    4. jrkrideau

      just heading off the inevitable comment, (not by an NC regular, thank heavens) about a childhood spent on the farm

      Hey, I did that.

      Virtually no supervision, breaks, typically as wanted, no formal pay but food, lodging, and essentially unlimited use of the automobiles for leisure pursuits when I was old enough to have a driver’s licence. Amazingly enough, the bosses (normally addressed as Mom & Dad) did care about my welfare.

      Very occasionally, under exceptional weather or harvest time conditions, one could end up with a 12 hour day but this was countered by lots of food and maybe an hour messing around in the lake.

    5. Michaelmas

      What’s particularly pathetic is this drive to bring back 19th century child labor conditions in the US is happening just as I learned from a VC acquaintance that something I thought was ten-twenty years away may be months away: bipedal robots are becoming capable of doing these jobs.

      Some background: Computationally, a task like humans could do easily like, say, going to the fridge, opening the fridge door, grabbing a beer can and popping the top off is actually incredibly complex and difficult. Those fancy Boston Dynamics robots are over-engineered physically, too expensive, and can’t be built on an individual machine basis to carry the computational power.

      But if you have a swarm of simple bipedal robots run by processing power with learning capability in the cloud, that works —

  2. jackiebass63

    Probably the biggest factor in students not being well educated is the availability of jobs at at fast food businesses. While staying at home at the parents expense, that fast food paycheck looks good to them. They don’t realize until it is too late that the pay check isn’t enough to live on when they go on their own. Probably why so many don’t want to leave the nest.I remember when I graduated from college and still staying at home that I was expected to pay room and board. I say this as a retired teacher dealing with middle and high school students for 35 tears.Another factor is that parents are too generous in giving their children everything they want. I remember shoveling snow, mowing lawns and washing dishes at a local restaurant to make some spending money. All of this helped me become a responsible adult.

    1. NarrativeMassagerInc

      Yep that fits my experience. I was a dumb kid and quit college after my first year because I found it boring. Well, paying rent and working as a waiter (the best pay I could get cuz tips) for a year and I was happy to get back to college. Kids are (well some of us) always looking for something better and don’t always have the ability to see further than the next week.

      This new development (well not that new, they’ve been discussing this since at least 2008 as I recall) to let children, real children and not even just stupid older teenagers like me, work in meatpacking plants, etc., is par for the course in our soulless, morality free nation. The USA was always thus but for a brief respite during the 20th century: profit over people and guided by moral monsters all the way. Pay more? Hah! Just get some slave children we don’t actually have to pay for and house (let’s call it nu-slavery). The lobbyists and pols doing this need to go straight to hell.

    2. tegnost

      I say this as a retired teacher dealing with middle and high school students for 35 tears.

      Only 35? They must’ve been good kids… :)

  3. MT_Wild

    I started working after-school at 14 at a donut shop finishing donuts. Pretty sure it was not illegal at the time. I started right before 9th grade. Not full time of course, but two or three says after school and then on the weekend. I used the money for school lunches, and a side business selling candy to my classmates. No joke, .25 cent pack of gum is worth a buck in the prison economy.

    At 15 I switched jobs to working in a meat room at a supermarket. Union job with actual benefits and pay raises. 24-30 hours a week after school and weekends. Again, think this was based on labor laws at the time in PA (1990). Dealt with stocking the deli case, working the seafood counter, wrapping meat. By the time I graduated at 17, I was doing inventory and ordering and making almost $12 an hour which was pretty good at the time. Online inflation calculator says thats $25.88 today which feels right. None of this hurt my schooling, I was coasting through classes anyways. Did hurt my high school sports prospects, because when I was told I’d have to quit work to make practice I said no thanks.

    So for me it worked out. I’m sure it doesn’t for everyone. But if I did not have the opportunity then, my life would have clearly been worse IMHO.

    1. NarrativeMassagerInc

      I thought this comment was preempted above. I guess not. This now is not what you did, by choice, as a kid. Yes, in my state we’re allowed to work at 14, but only part time and only in certain types of jobs. Its good for kids to work a bit like you did. Its not right to have them cleaning meatpacking plants, working assembly lines and other dangerous jobs. Working a deli counter is a light job compared to those. Very light. I know, I worked one for a summer. This is also, as that tweet demonstrates, desperate families lying to get their kid a dangerous job so they don’t lose their house. The country is not the one you and I were raised in. After 30-40 years of privatization, neoliberalization, hollowed out economies and collapsing wages, its become a desperate struggle for survival. A bit different from a kid deciding he didn’t want to do sports so he could make some extra dosh to get a car or whatever.

      1. Heather

        The summer I was 16 I worked 12 hours a night, six days a week, at Dole Cannery, trimming pineapples. I hated it and only did it because I wanted to get enough money to take a trip to the Mainland. And I worked nights because I made 5 cents an hour more at night. I lasted two months, but by then I had my plane ticket. I learned that I’d better do well in school and go to college, I certainly didn’t want to trim pineapples for the rest of my life! A year or two later I was working at JC Penney, seemed like Heaven after the cannery! Two of my sisters also worked at Dole Cannery, one for three summers, she actually liked it! And my mother and some of her sisters worked there during the 1930s, it was almost a rite of passage back then in Honolulu. Of course my sisters and I worked there over 50 years ago, the cannery closed down decades ago.
        But we weren’t 13 years old, it was our choice (with heaps of pushing from our dad!), and we could quit anytime. I hate the way our country is going back to Victorian England. It’ll be back to the Dark Ages next.

        1. Eclair

          Well, Heather, that’s put me off eating canned pineapple! Although the pineapple trimming has probably been mechanized, yeah?

          I worked summers during high school and my first year at college, at a posh coastal Maine vacation community, as nanny and general household slave for a family with six kids. And a father who couldn’t keep his pants zipped. And me, a nice Catholic girl who thought it was all my fault. Took me years to recover.

          So many awful things can happen to children. As a society we should be doing all we can to protect them, not setting up a system where their exploitation becomes normalized. And the profit from destroying their lives accrues to a small coterie of ruthless and venal people.

          1. Heather

            I’m sorry, Eclair, what a terrible thing to happen to you. I’m a good Catholic girl, too, and worked very briefly as a nanny, I didn’t last long because I hated it. The dad was okay, but the mother was impossible! Her kids were, of course, the best ever birthed on this earth, and her expectations were ridiculous. I’m sorry it took you so long to get over what happened to you as a nanny. Personally, I thinks it’s beyond unfair the way society and Our Holy Mother, the Church, tries to make certain crimes the fault of girls, women, and children. No wonder the Church is usually on the wrong side of history.

    2. SS

      All the people writing about their experience are those who wanted the money to pay for something else other than basic food/ shelter – the bill here is to pull in kids and families that are starving for these basic items. One test – make all the lobbyists and legislators slave their children in this fashion.

  4. Ghost in the Machine

    Whatever the potential benefits of getting work experience as a kid, it is pretty clear the push to get children working in meatpacking plants and construction will just grind them up (perhaps literally) for profits. There is no intention to send them onto something better after getting ‘experience.’ Just another sign of the moral decay of a declining empire. A decidedly anti-life empire. Reading about Nazi Germany, particularly writers like Hannah Arendt, I sometimes wondered how average non-evil people who were aware felt about being embedded in an evil system. I am starting to learn. It is stressful.

  5. JonnyJames

    I’ll join in: I started working when I was 14 as well. I worked an insane number of hours while going to college and my health suffered, I resorted to caffeine and amphetamines to stay awake (true) Luckily I was able to get off of speed after I graduated uni.

    I’m so great, I’m better than everyone else, and my work ethic is better than the OTHERS who are lazy and spoiled. So now I will conflate the issue by being an apologist for the Oligarchy. It’s good for children to suffer, it builds character, right? (sarcasm). So make sure you spread the Collective Stockholm Syndrome to others:
    It’s good for the oligarchy to ruthlessly exploit child labor and make them work in dangerous conditions, it builds character. (sarcasm). That will solve much of our “labor shortage” problems eh

    So then, YOU should be willing to send your kids to work in a slaughterhouse, after you read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. All of the cheerleaders for child labor: how many of your kids work a slaughterhouse? (and please don’t call it an “abattoir”)

    1. Heather

      Great comment JonnyJames! My son was in the Army from 2008-2014 because we couldn’t afford to send him to college, he got to go after he came out and the Army paid for it. I was a wreck the whole time he was in, thinking he’d be sent to Afghanistan or Iraq, or some damn place we have no business being. Luckily, he went into the Honor Guard and never left the States. In fact he got to met Obama once, and he told him he was from Hawai’i, too, and stupid Obama was really rude to him. My point is just I’d like to see some of these rich oligarchs have to send their beloved children into the military or out to work at some shit a$$ job. I was happy when the draft ended, but now I am not so sure about it. This country sickens me.

      1. JonnyJames

        Thank you. Wouldn’t it be great if the pathetic cowards, warmongering in a suit and tie, be forced to serve a minimum of one year in dangerous combat. Imagine if John Bolton, for example, was stripped of his security and bodyguards and faced a truly dangerous situation: he would promptly soil himself and suffer a breakdown. Instead, he gets to pose as a “tough guy”, on camera while sycophantic stenographers (so-called journalists) fawn over his every word.

  6. JonnyJames

    “Back in my day, when I was a kid, we worked 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week. Sometimes you lost a finger, or a hand, but we loved it!”

    (Grumpy Old Man, h/t Dana Carvey)

  7. 10leggedshadow

    Every one seems to be tip toeing around the elephant in the room: We live in a new Gilded Age, this time with improved surveillance and cell phones.

  8. B Flat

    I have to say I didn’t see coming the return of child labor especially of the sort memorialized by Jacob Riis. Oddly, or not, this trend seems to dovetail with the trend of encouraging children to make adult sized life decisions about their sex and gender. Except in that case beneficiary numéro uno is Big Pharma (Big Trans?) rather than Big Ag or other industrial scale Big.

  9. Copeland

    Just another predictable nail in our collective coffin. Fits right in with rolling back clean air and water laws, treaties regarding nuclear weapons, etc. There was a time when we actually discouraged everyone from driving around in massive trucks as their daily drivers. I think there would be mass revolt if something like that was ever tried again – ‘We Will Not Comply!’. Chlorofluorocarbons are also reportedly making a comeback. What could possibly go wrong?

  10. B24S

    I am reminded of a TV show my kids watched, called “Malcolm in the Middle”, an early Bruce Cranston series. One episode the older brother gets a job in a meat packing plant. At dinner after his first shift he’s terribly excited, as his co-workers have already given him a nickname!

    With no prodding from his family, he obliviously, but proudly, announces his newly acquired moniker:
    “Ten Fingers!”

    My first paid job was at 14., matting and mounting at a picture framing business, when I wanted to buy a 10 speed bike. Before that, starting when I was about 12, I assisted my mother with torch and file, teaching cloisonné enameling and jewelry making, as well as cleaning the shop. My “wages” were the sweepings, whatever gold or silver inattentive students had dropped on the floor.

    Just shy of 70, after a lifetime working with all sorts of sharp and deadly machines and things (and unlike some I know), I proudly still have all of my own ten. Twenty, if we’re also counting toes…

  11. Bugs

    My parents forced me to get an “after-school job” while a junior in high school. It ruined my grades, I no longer had interest in school and it sent me off into the wilderness for 10 years until I got my s””” together enough to realize that I needed a college education because I was on the road to nowhere. I’ll never forgive the adults, the system and the mentality that led to that unneeded detour. It’s going to be very bad for these kids. I’m sure that if that bell hadn’t rung in my head at age 25, I’d be in my grave by now.

  12. Paleobotanist

    Those of us from rural or wilderness background remember well being forced to work in family operations. We also remember enough cases of children and teenagers being severely injured, mutilated and crippled, or even killed by parents ordering them to do tasks that they did not have the strength, coordination or training for, together with parents not providing safety equipment. Some parents are quite rapacious and exploitative and not terribly concerned about their offspring’s well-being in fact. Children don’t have to be paid. There is a reason the bad old days were the bad old days. The injuries were of course the stupid kids’ faults. Children belong in school period and not at work. It is a minority of parents like this but a large enough one.
    As well, working 10-20 hours a week pretty much guarantees that grades will not be terribly good due to less time to study or rest. Profs see this all the time. We also see students working after school to support their families while some parents don’t work at all or that many hours. It’s an ugly world out there. Society has a duty and self-interest to protect these unfortunate children.

  13. Synoia

    Growing UP in the UK, I could not get a summer Job at 15. A6 16 I did, and war paid 60% of th4 current wage while performing the same work as those older, who were paid the full wage.

    The job was in the Felixstowe Docks loading Baltic timber (lumber in the US) onto trucks.

    Child labor increases profits. Full wages were paid alter one’s 18th birthday.

  14. Ernie

    The move toward child labor reeks of the feudal cultures for which the US was created to eliminate.

    And yes, I say that keeping in mind all the feudal behavior in our past and present, because I am also keeping in mind the originally foundational document, the Declaration of Independence, which established the basic principles of equality and inherent, inalienable rights for all people. Moreover, there are still lots of people who believe in that. Just look at the small sample of such people responding to the article, not to mention the people who write this and others like it.

    And I believe progress is still possible.

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