A New Republican Assault on Children: Overturning Labor Laws

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Yves here. While this article catalogues how some Republican states either have or are in the process of passing laws that would weaken restrictions on children serving as workers, it overeggs the pudding by depicting the rise in child labor as solely Republican affair. The piece cites a February New York Times report showing the exploitation of underage workers from Central America in food processing, construction, and other taxing and potentially dangerous jobs.

From the New York Times:

Largely from Central America, the children are driven by economic desperation that was worsened by the pandemic. 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….

Migrant child labor benefits both under-the-table operations and global corporations, The Times found. In Los Angeles, children stitch “Made in America” tags into J. Crew shirts. They bake dinner rolls sold at Walmart and Target, process milk used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and help debone chicken sold at Whole Foods. As recently as the fall, middle-schoolers made Fruit of the Loom socks in Alabama. In Michigan, children make auto parts used by Ford and General Motors.

The number of unaccompanied minors entering the United States climbed to a high of 130,000 last year — three times what it was five years earlier — and this summer is expected to bring another wave.

These are not children who have stolen into the country undetected. The federal government knows they are in the United States, and the Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for ensuring sponsors will support them and protect them from trafficking or exploitation.

But as more and more children have arrived, the Biden White House has ramped up demands on staffers to move the children quickly out of shelters and release them to adults. Caseworkers say they rush through vetting sponsors.

While H.H.S. checks on all minors by calling them a month after they begin living with their sponsors, data obtained by The Times showed that over the last two years, the agency could not reach more than 85,000 children. Overall, the agency lost immediate contact with a third of migrant children.

An H.H.S. spokeswoman said the agency wanted to release children swiftly, for the sake of their well-being, but had not compromised safety. “There are numerous places along the process to continually ensure that a placement is in the best interest of the child,” said the spokeswoman, Kamara Jones.

Far from home, many of these children are under intense pressure to earn money. They send cash back to their families while often being in debt to their sponsors for smuggling fees, rent and living expenses.

Yes, so evil Republicans want to make it safe for employers to participate in what sometimes is human trafficking. But the article make clear the problem starts with the Biden Administration allowing many many more unaccompanied minors to enter and not bothering to keep tabs on them. Losing “immediate contact” with a third? That turn of phrase implies more fall of the grid later. And how often will HHS reach a supposedly responsible adult and have that adult make honest representations as to whether the kid is working or not?

In other words, to pretend this is a totally Republican affair is misleading. It’s just that, as usual, the Republicans are more up front about their aims.

By Sonali Kolhatkar, 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. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute

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 childrento 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.

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  1. JBird4049

    >>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.

    I don’t think that the GOP has an agenda as much as a worshipping of the Gods of the Free Market, which is what the Democratic Party also has. Perhaps this can be looked as just another example of the gradual breakdown of the law or increasing corruption. This is something abetted by the entire political system. If it was more profitable to give every child rainbows and unicorns, that is what they would do as the welfare of the children means nothing to the greater goal of more money.

    1. Laura in So Cal

      I see this as a part of a general trend against labor law enforcement or interference in the business/labor relationship by government no matter who is in office. Democrats won’t enforce the prohibition on illegal immigrant workers etc and are okay with things like CA Prop 22 while republicans are so “government shouldn’t interfere” that they don’t follow their laws to their logical conclusion which is usually bad.

    1. tevhatch

      so okay if the parents are over 18 years old? Lest we jest I have to sign a contract (liability waver) with my child’s school, etc.

      Good old fashion child labour was a contract between the capitalist’s agents and the parents/legal (or not so legal) guardian. It’s still the case in not so good even older fashion slave labour practiced quietly even inside the USA.

  2. The Rev Kev

    Still hard to believe that we are once again dealing with child labour in the 21st century. I suspect that the people that are pushing for it are not simply doing so for their own direct financial interests but that they are doing so because this is part of their beliefs and it helps define who they are. I’m just waiting for them to bring back indentured servants yet once again i.e. slavery lite.

    1. tevhatch

      Listen in on Southern Baptists, sometimes when they feel safe they talk about the need to bring back race based chattel slavery. The USA already has bonded slavery and prison slavery, it’s just not efficient as the labour isn’t mobile.

    2. eg

      Indentured servitude is already back — it’s just been repackaged as un-dischargeable student debt …

  3. JonnyJames

    Republicans? Democrats? Do we still believe that the US is a democracy, with freedom and free market?

    The US “is an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery” (Jimmy Carter, 2015). “Democracy, freedom, free markets, press freedom” are just PR slogans.

    Immigrant child labor can be tied into US foreign policy as well, with BIPARTISAN support. Regime change, meddling, financial imperialism, and even outright military intervention in central and south America and Caribbean, produces a steady stream of desperate refugee migrants. These, mostly young people, are good for business. A steady stream of quasi slave labor (and even debt peonage, and chattel slavery) has always been part of the US economy, since day one. No difference today, it’s just getting worse.

    The two factions of The Country Club play “good cop, bad cop.” kabuki theater to distract and mislead the public. “The Rs stab you in the chest, the Ds stab you in the back”. As the saying goes: the lesser of two evils is still evil. So, if we don’t like “the evil Republicans” we can “vote” for the other evil faction, but you cannot vote out the Evil Country Club. The joke is on us. Maybe it’s time to boycott elections and demonstrate instead, or mass boycotts of Ds and Rs and write-in other candidate

  4. TimH

    “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.”

    But can’t legalise (adult) sex work, even if for some people “it is the best available alternative open to them”.

    1. JBird4049

      Well, you have the upper middle class women in the Professional Managerial Class, usually Democrats, being righteous in saving women and children from exploitation and abuse while the bluenoses in the Republican Party also add the charge of sin and moral degradation. It is all For the Children!

      That people usually do this because poverty; making it all illegal, destroying the various websites and organizations that existed to manage the business aspects or to monitor the customers drives people to work on the streets; that this creates the very conditions including exploitation and violence by the customers, gangs, and corrupt police either escapes the people’s notice or they just do not care. I also think that the more corrupt parts of the nonprofit industry as well as the carceral state wants this to continue as they can make money from it.

    2. LAS

      Moreover, who is the judge that decides this is the best alternative open to them? What is the caste system that decides it is the best option open to “them” as opposed to all of us? How much is being determined by certain special interests sponsoring the political parties in the USA!

  5. Sue inSoCal

    Yes, it’s bipartisan collusion on this appalling one. We’re rolling it back to the 18th, 19th century because it works so well for the free market, now on steroids. “Please, sir, I want some more.” …Because I haven’t eaten in two weeks….Just sell them to “good people”. Why there’s no involvement by the AG’s office is a mind blower to me, but Jimmy Carter nailed it. Any vestige of a democracy is gone.

  6. A guy in Washington DC

    Let no good deed go unpunished. On March 1, 2003, the Homeland Security Act of 2002, Section 462, transferred responsibilities for the care and placement of unaccompanied children (UC) from the Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to the Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

    At that point every minor became a refugee and was not sent back home. So the parents, not being stupid, sent the kids north- they couldn’t be turned back. Now note that the Office of Refugee Settlement didn’t have to treat each child (meaning under the age of 18) as a refugee, but they did. So for each one year age cohort of roughly 4,000,000 people coming of age in the US, 130,000 are now kids, usually with little formal education from the third world; that’s 3.3% of our population via this one loophole. In theory, a million could come every year and be handed over to the organization resettling refugees.

    And as for the “underage and underpaid” side, exactly why is it immoral and unacceptable to have underage children doing dangerous work in a garment factory here when most Americans are perfectly happy to buy clothing from the third world produced under the exact same conditions?

    This sort of nuttiness is what is driving the desperation in the middle of America for “A change”, no matter how radical and dangerous it may appear to be to the folks in Washington.

    1. rob

      now all we need is a billionaire -to -be “entrepreneur”, to rectify the “injustice” in having all these “refugees” entering the USofA, with no stream-lined mode of acquisition of meaningless employment.
      A facilitator, for the masses…
      where the courts and the legislatures all see fit to make sure this pipeline to employment, has its wheels greased, and runway cleared…
      just another example of neo-liberal “improvements”.

  7. eg

    Who are we kidding? Making the world safe for Victorian era child labor laws is a bipartisan project in America.

  8. Telee

    Reelect President Biden who will protect freedom and let him finish the job he started.

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