The Return of Child Labor As the Latest Sign of American Decline

Posted on by

Yves here. This post describes the long history of children serving as worker, and how modern economies moved away from it. Perhaps I am being unduly critical, but the long discussion of how common child labor once was serves to normalize it, which would seem to be contrary to the author’s intent.

Perhaps my take is too high level, and US-centric. However, up to the Industrial Revolution, most people worked as subsistence farmers. Thus children were most often required to participate in helping assure survival. Recall that death rates among children were high due to disease, and undernourishment didn’t help survival rates. Thus exploitation within the family would be defensible as unavoidable, provided the kids were not overburdened.

With the Industrial Revolution came the enclosure movement in England, making self-supporting farming untenable via the loss of common pastureland, forcing many into cities and factory labor. Children could do jobs that required small hands and fingers, like some types of textile work. As Marx and Engles chronicled, those jobs were often dangerous and brutalizing. In the US, borderline and actual depression conditions in the second half of the nineteenth century hit farmer hard. Some families with many children would send one or two away to reduce the drain on the household….which often meant being exploited where they landed.

The long-winded point here is that children not being required to work is a function of surplus. The fact that the US is rolling the clock back is a vivid proof of deterioration of household economics in the bottom half of the food chain.

By Steve Fraser. Originally published at TomDispatch

An aged Native-American chieftain was visiting New York City for the first time in 1906. He was curious about the city and the city was curious about him. A magazine reporter asked the chief what most surprised him in his travels around town. “Little children working,” the visitor replied. 

Child labor might have shocked that outsider, but it was all too commonplace then across urban, industrial America (and on farms where it had been customary for centuries). In more recent times, however, it’s become a far rarer sight. Law and custom, most of us assume, drove it to near extinction. And our reaction to seeing it reappear might resemble that chief’s — shock, disbelief. 

But we better get used to it, since child labor is making a comeback with a vengeance. A striking number of lawmakers are undertaking concerted efforts to weaken or repeal statutes that have long prevented (or at least seriously inhibited) the possibility of exploiting children. 

Take a breath and consider this: the number of kids at work in the U.S. increased by 37% between 2015 and 2022. During the last two years, 14 states have either introduced or enacted legislation rolling back regulations that governed the number of hours children can be employed, lowered the restrictions on dangerous work, and legalized subminimum wages for youths.

Iowa now allows those as young as 14 to work in industrial laundries. At age 16, they can take jobs in roofing, construction, excavation, and demolition and can operate power-driven machinery. Fourteen-year-olds can now even work night shifts and once they hit 15 can join assembly lines. All of this was, of course, prohibited not so long ago.    

Legislators offer fatuous justifications for such incursions into long-settled practice. Working, they tell us, will get kids off their computers or video games or away from the TV. Or it will strip the government of the power to dictate what children can and can’t do, leaving parents in control — a claim already transformed into fantasy by efforts to strip away protective legislation and permit 14-year-old kids to work without formal parental permission.

In 2014, the Cato Institute, a right-wing think tank, published “A Case Against Child Labor Prohibitions,” arguing that such laws stifled opportunity for poor — and especially Black — children. The Foundation for Government Accountability, a think tank funded by a range of wealthy conservative donors including the DeVos family, has spearheaded efforts to weaken child-labor laws, and Americans for Prosperity, the billionaire Koch brothers’ foundation, has joined in.

Nor are these assaults confined to red states like Iowa or the South. California, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, and New Hampshire, as well as Georgia and Ohio, have been targeted, too. Even New Jersey passed a law in the pandemic years temporarily raising the permissible work hours for 16- to 18-year-olds.

The blunt truth of the matter is that child labor pays and is fast becoming remarkably ubiquitous. It’s an open secret that fast-food chains have employed underage kids for years and simply treat the occasional fines for doing so as part of the cost of doing business. Children as young as 10 have been toiling away in such pit stops in Kentucky and older ones working beyond the hourly limits prescribed by law. Roofers in Florida and Tennessee can now be as young as 12.

Recently, the Labor Department found more than 100 children between the ages of 13 and 17 working in meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses in Minnesota and Nebraska. And those were anything but fly-by-night operations. Companies like Tyson Foods and Packer Sanitation Services (owned by BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management firm) were also on the list.

At this point, virtually the entire economy is remarkably open to child labor. Garment factories and auto parts manufacturers (supplying Ford and General Motors) employ immigrant kids, some for 12-hour days. Many are compelled to drop out of school just to keep up. In a similar fashion, Hyundai and Kia supply chains depend on children working in Alabama.

As the New York Times reported last February, helping break the story of the new child labor market, underage kids, especially migrants, are working in cereal-packing plants and food-processing factories. In Vermont, “illegals” (because they’re too young to work) operate milking machines. Some children help make J. Crew shirts in Los Angeles, bake rolls for Walmart, or work producing Fruit of the Loom socks. Danger lurks. America is a notoriously unsafe place to work and the accident rate for child laborers is especially high, including a chilling inventory of shattered spines, amputations, poisonings, and disfiguring burns.  

Journalist Hannah Dreier has called it “a new economy of exploitation,” especially when it comes to migrant children. A Grand Rapids, Michigan, schoolteacher, observing the same predicament, remarked: “You’re taking children from another country and putting them almost in industrial servitude.”

The Long Ago Now

Today, we may be as stunned by this deplorable spectacle as that chief was at the turn of the twentieth century. Our ancestors, however, would not have been. For them, child labor was taken for granted. 

Hard work, moreover, had long been considered by those in the British upper classes who didn’t have to do so as a spiritual tonic that would rein in the unruly impulses of the lower orders.  An Elizabethan law of 1575 provided public money to employ children as “a prophylactic against vagabonds and paupers.”

By the eighteenth century, the philosopher John Locke, then a celebrated champion of liberty, was arguing that three-year-olds should be included in the labor force. Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, was happy that “children after four or five years of age could every one earn their own bread.” Later, Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, would opt for four, since otherwise, society would suffer the loss of “precious years in which nothing is done! Nothing for Industry! Nothing for improvement, moral or intellectual.”

American “founding father” Alexander Hamilton’s 1791 Report on Manufacturing noted that children “who would otherwise be idle” could instead become a source of cheap labor. And such claims that working at an early age warded off the social dangers of “idleness and degeneracy” remained a fixture of elite ideology well into the modern era. Indeed, it evidently remains so today. 

When industrialization began in earnest during the first half of the nineteenth century, observers noted that work in the new factories (especially textile mills) was “better done by little girls of 6-12 years old.” By 1820, children accounted for 40% of the mill workers in three New England states. In that same year, children under 15 made up 23% of the manufacturing labor force and as much as 50% of the production of cotton textiles.

And such numbers would only soar after the Civil War. In fact, the children of ex-slaves were effectively re-enslaved through onerous apprenticeship arrangements. Meanwhile, in New York City and other urban centers, Italian padrones expedited the exploitation of immigrant kids while treating them brutally.  Even the then-brahmin-minded, anti-immigrant New York Times took offense: “The world has given up stealing men from the African coast, only to kidnap children from Italy.”

Between 1890 and 1910, 18% of all children between the ages of 10 and 15, about two million young people, worked, often 12 hours a day, six days a week.

Their jobs covered the waterfront — all too literally as, under the supervision of padrones, thousands of children shucked oysters and picked shrimp. Kids were also street messengers and newsies. They worked in offices and factories, banks and brothels. They were “breakers” and “trappers” in poorly ventilated coal mines, particularly dangerous and unhealthy jobs. In 1900, out of 100,000 workers in textile mills in the South, 20,000 were under the age of 12.

City orphans were shipped off to labor in the glassworks of the Midwest. Thousands of children stayed home and helped their families turn out clothing for sweatshop manufacturers. Others packed flowers in ill-ventilated tenements. One seven-year-old explained that “I like school better than home. I don’t like home. There are too many flowers.” And down on the farm, the situation was no less grim, as children as young as three worked hulling berries.

All in the Family               

Clearly, well into the twentieth century, industrial capitalism depended on the exploitation of children who were cheaper to employ, less able to resist, and until the advent of more sophisticated technologies, well suited to deal with the relatively simple machinery then in place.

Moreover, the authority exercised by the boss was in keeping with that era’s patriarchal assumptions, whether in the family or even in the largest of the overwhelmingly family-owned new industrial firms of that time like Andrew Carnegie’s steelworks. And such family capitalism gave birth to a perverse alliance of boss and underling that transformed children into miniature wage-laborers.

Meanwhile, working-class families were so severely exploited that they desperately needed the income of their children. As a result, in Philadelphia around the turn of the century, the labor of children accounted for between 28% and 33% of the household income of native-born, two-parent families. For Irish and German immigrants, the figures were 46% and 35% respectively. Not surprisingly, then, working-class parents often opposed proposals for child labor laws. As noted by Karl Marx, the worker was no longer able to support himself, so “now he sells his wife and child. He becomes a slave dealer.”  

Nonetheless, resistance began to mount. The sociologist and muckraking photographer Lewis Hine scandalized the country with heart-rending pictures of kids slaving away in factories and down in the pits of mines. (He got into such places by pretending to be a Bible salesman.) Mother Jones, the militant defender of labor organizing, led a “children’s crusade” in 1903 on behalf of 46,000 striking textile workers in Philadelphia. Two hundred child-worker delegates showed up at President Teddy Roosevelt’s Oyster Bay, Long Island, residence to protest, but the president simply passed the buck, claiming child labor was a state matter, not a federal one.

Here and there, kids tried running away. In response, owners began surrounding their factories with barbed wire or made the children work at night when their fear of the dark might keep them from fleeing. Some of the 146 women who died in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village — the owners of that garment factory had locked the doors, forcing the trapped workers to leap to their deaths from upper floor windows — were as young as 15. That tragedy only added to a growing furor over child labor.

A National Child Labor Committee was formed in 1904. For years, it lobbied states to outlaw, or at least rein in, the use of child labor. Victories, however, were often distinctly pyrrhic, as the laws enacted were invariably weak, included dozens of exemptions, and poorly enforced. Finally, in 1916, a federal law was passed that outlawed child labor everywhere. In 1918, however, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.

In fact, only in the 1930s, after the Great Depression hit, did conditions begin improving. Given its economic devastation, you might assume that cheap child labor would have been at a premium. However, with jobs so scarce, adults — males especially — took precedence and began doing work once relegated to children. In those same years, industrial work began incorporating ever more complex machinery that proved too difficult for younger kids. Meanwhile, the age of compulsory schooling was steadily rising, limiting yet more the available pool of child laborers. 

Most important of all, the tenor of the times changed.  The insurgent labor movement of the 1930s loathed the very idea of child labor. Unionized plants and whole industries were no-go zones for capitalists looking to exploit children. And in 1938, with the support of organized labor, President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal administration finally passed the Fair Labor Standards Act which, at least in theory, put an end to child labor (although it exempted the agricultural sector in which such a workforce remained commonplace).

Moreover, Roosevelt’s New Deal transformed the national zeitgeist. A sense of economic egalitarianism, a newfound respect for the working class, and a bottomless suspicion of the corporate caste made child labor seem particularly repulsive. In addition, the New Deal ushered in a long era of prosperity, including rising standards of living for millions of working people who no longer needed the labor of their children to make ends meet.

Back to the Future

It’s all the more astonishing then to discover that a plague, once thought banished, lives again. American capitalism is a global system, its networks extend virtually everywhere. Today, there are an estimated 152 million children at work worldwide. Not all of them, of course, are employed directly or even indirectly by U.S. firms. But they should certainly be a reminder of how deeply retrogressive capitalism has once again become both here at home and elsewhere across the planet.

Boasts about the power and wealth of the American economy are part of our belief system and elite rhetoric. However, life expectancy in the U.S., a basal measure of social retrogression, has been relentlessly declining for years. Health care is not only unaffordable for millions, but its quality has become second-rate at best if you don’t belong to the top 1%. In a similar fashion, the country’s infrastructure has long been in decline, thanks to both its age and decades of neglect. 

Think of the United States, then, as a “developed” country now in the throes of underdevelopment and, in that context, the return of child labor is deeply symptomatic. Even before the Great Recession that followed the financial implosion of 2008, standards of living had been falling, especially for millions of working people laid low by a decades-long tsunami of de-industrialization. That recession, which officially lasted until 2011, only further exacerbated the situation. It put added pressure on labor costs, while work became increasingly precarious, ever more stripped of benefits and ununionized. Given the circumstances, why not turn to yet another source of cheap labor — children? 

The most vulnerable among them come from abroad, migrants from the Global South, escaping failing economies often traceable to American economic exploitation and domination. If this country is now experiencing a border crisis — and it is — its origins lie on this side of the border.

The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-2022 created a brief labor shortage, which became a pretext for putting kids back to work (even if the return of child labor actually predated the disease). Consider such child workers in the twenty-first century as a distinct sign of social pathology. The United States may still bully parts of the world, while endlessly showing off its military might. At home, however, it is sick.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. griffen

    Capitalists everywhere, will no one rid us of these meddlesome rabble rousers who wish to make above the minimum wage? Wait, we see the solution from history. Hire more children! \sarc

    No one sent me into the coal mines, so for that I’m thankful; I did have a newspaper route twice per week, which earned me pocket money at least (about age 14). But these different anecdotes in recent years have become prevalent, whether that’s young migrants in the direct or indirect employ of Hyundai factory in Alabama or the above reference to meat packaging and slaughterhouse industries. I’ve read plenty of bad stuff from the large poultry outfits in North Carolina, these are not safe environments even for the adults.

  2. The Rev Kev

    Probably the worse aspect of this whole thing is not that child labour is needed – it isn’t – but so many want it as a matter of class privilege. The people pushing for these laws and legislators enabling them – you think that any of their kids will be taken out of private academies and sent out into the work force? But in reading it, I realized that there was a dog that was not barking. So where exactly were all the religious groups on this? I’m pretty sure that a generation or two ago you would have a combined group of Priests, Ministers, Pastors, Imams and Rabbis coming together against these laws on moral grounds. Maybe I missed it but I never heard a peep from any of them over these laws on their questionable moral validity.

    1. Freethinker

      Maybe a reflection of religious loss of power, or some would have joined as enthusiastically …..remember the Magdalene laundries? State and societal collusion allowed the enslavement for profit in drudge work of a section of the most vulnerable people in society who had committed no crime legally – this continued into the second half of the 20th century and was only ended by the widespread use of the washing machine. I can only speak for my birth religion, but would bet all have their violations given people are essentially the same and there are always those who have no empathy and they almost always get to the top of society.

  3. Lexx

    Quick check on Amazon to see what condoms are selling for… around 42 cents apiece for 36, 25% less if you subscribe.

    Let’s say you demand sex every night at .36 cents per night x 365 = $131.14. Seems cheap to me compared to the cost of caring for a child (or several) and growing a tribe in this highly exploitive global economy.

    ‘Sure my son was maimed at work but he was starving in Columbia where there was no work for him and I was paid even less than here… and at least he was crippled while doing something respectable like helping to provide for his ten younger brothers and sisters.’

    What is the propaganda outside this country about what opportunities this country may provide if you can manage to get yourself and family in? Do they have any idea how expensive it is to live here? And if they don’t, why not? We stopped being the beacon on the hill decades ago. I can understand running away but I’m struggling with running toward.

    1. JBird4049

      >>>I can understand running away but I’m struggling with running toward.

      What Americans are enjoying right now has been happening longer and to a much more extensive and economically destructive way in Latin America especially Central America, which is where most of the migrants are coming from.

      The United States for over a century has been running coups, supporting their chosen dictator’s regime with money, training, and weapons, or even invading and occupying sometimes for years; the economies of almost all of Central America and some of South America has been violently reorganized for the profitable exploitation of American businesses. The term Banana Republic comes from this. The United Fruit Company got the United States to overthrow the government of Honduras, IIRC, although it could originally have been Guatemala. The country was pushing back against the corruption of, and general abuse, by the company.

      Because it worked so well, the process was repeated in almost all the Central American countries: reforms often after fair elections, followed by coups and/or outright invasion by American marines, decades of violent, often lethal, repression by the American approved dictatorship and/or oligarchy, the devolvement or regression, or an enforce containment, of the economy into a strictly resource extraction with no manufacturing abilities along with massive corruption and a very small group of families getting all the wealth. All this and extirpation of any kind of civil society except a tamed church, often by beatings, rapes, torture, and assassinations by state sanctioned goon squads working with the military and police.

      Bluntly, the economies of many countries have been so destroyed that the United States’ economy is still much better even though it is undergoing the same process as those countries. It just has so much more to fall, even now. The immigrants still come here because they have some chance to feed their families by working here whereas they might literally starve if they do not. Sending money back to their families in their home countries is easy to do.

      Sometimes, it is hard not to loathe my country, truly.

  4. jackiebass63

    I’m 82 and I remember my dad talking about quitting school at 12 and going to work in a coal mine.Most boys back the only went to school through 7th or 8th grade. The quit and worked in a mine or factory. The same was true of farm children. The boys worked on the farm at a very young age.Often girls went to school through 10th grade which at that time was the highest grade. My mother had to quit school at 15. Her mother died and she had to quit to take care of the men living at home. Both my mother and father worked in the local foundry until they retired. Probably because of their experience my parents insisted my sister and I get more than high school education. My sister got a nursing degree and I got a BS from the local college.My children and my sisters children all have college degrees.I believe for many but not all post H.S. education is the most important thing they can do.Some people have special skills allowing them to work in the trades.They usually do well.The key is you need a skill to make it.You also must be willing to work. Don’t expect a job to be a place to go to get a pay check.There is a lot of help out there but you must be willing to work.Any person willing to do an honest days work will always have a job.I have talked to may employers. Their biggest complaint is the people don’t want to work and aren’t dependable. Part of it is the fault of parents. They think giving their children all of the material things is their most important function.It creates dependent children that can’t eventually support themselves .

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      i remember the tales of my grandads…one grew up on the family homestead, left of his own accord at age 11 to join the circus…sent money home.
      the other ran off at 12 to work on high rises(indian ancestry)…sent money home.
      both of these tales were during the Depression.
      my mom and dad did nothing of the sort, of course,lol…but, after the divorce, mom became a slave driver for my brother and i.
      worst boss i’ve ever had….but i did get a work ethic out of it…filtered through my grandparents, of course…that the sooner i could finish the tasks assigned, the sooner i could run to the woods to read.

      with my own kids, wife and i decided early that they wouldn’t be couch taters.
      especially since my legs, then back, were going out right about the time our second son was born.
      so our eldest, at 4, stepped up….and i couldn’t be prouder of him, today, at 21.
      same “walk by and get it done” that i inherited from my grandads, he apparently inherited from me.
      our youngest still needs work in this regard…a feature of being the baby, i suppose….wife coddled him.
      but he. at 17, has a job…and helps big brother with the lawn care side hustle…as well as both of them helping me around here.
      the difference between me and my mom was management style.
      i strove to not be an a$$hole boss, nor a tyrant…leaving ample time for both boys to “be kids”…to lay around…to play sports and the dern videogames.
      but when $hit needs doing, they step up.
      wife and i were careful to cultivate an esprit de corps…and it paid off.

      my mom, otoh, resented such things…like brother and i were stealing what was rightfully hers(our time and labor)

      work…no matter the political economic system….is a fact of life.
      better to include it in yer child rearing practice than not.
      its when the exploitation and a$$holery begin that theres a problem.

      1. Jams O'Donnell

        Work is ‘a fact of life’ only since the invention of farming. Hunter-gatherer societies evidently spent only a couple of hours per day on food and shelter – the rest of their time was spent in singing, story-telling, etc. Not that I am disregarding the advantages of civilisation – dentistry, medicine, etc. but the need to work is an artificial one.

        Marx’s vision of the future of society was similar to the hunter-gatherer one, where a person could work in the morning, go fishing in the afternoon and see a play in the evening. But we’re a long way from that yet. Robotics and AI could deliver, if well implemented and closely controlled, but not in our present capitalist economic tyranny.

    2. M.

      I work for a fairly large and profitable company in a blue collar role and management constantly complains about “people not wanting to work” yet they seem determined to drive off people who most definitely want to work.

      They will schedule you to work night shifts and then schedule you for a “mandatory overtime” shift that starts 7 hours after you clock out.

      You needed to call in because your babysitting arrangement fell through? Thats an unexcused absence.

      You badged in the at the guard shack at 1:55 but didn’t clock in on the opposite of the building until 2:02? You’re late and now you have “points” towards termination.

      When employers say “no wants to work” they mean “Employees won’t contort their lives to our opaque, ludicrous and constantly shifting demands that have nothing to do with productivity or efficiency. Dumb bastards want a wage that pays rent too!”

  5. eg

    America — making the world safe for Victorian era working conditions.

    This is your “shining city on a hill?”

    1. digi_owl

      That slogan only made sense as long as various feudal systems ruled Europe, while USA was parceling out land to anyone that could maintain a farm on them for 3 or so years.

  6. Ed L.

    “…the New Deal ushered in a long era of prosperity…”

    No it didn’t. World War II ushered in a long era of prosperity. It was Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini who were responsible for ending the Great Depression, not FDR. The war resulted in both full employment in the booming civilian sector and the ultimate federal jobs program…16 million Americans served in the military from 1941 to 1945..

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      The economy had significantly recovered by 1936 but the Feds cut spending and the economy turned down into a mini-depression in 1937. There was a deep recession in 1946 when the war ended. Please explain why growth continued after then since the more than full employment (women in the workforce who went back to being homebodies afterward) ended.

      1. Cristobal

        I think you are both right. FDR´s reforms laid the ground work, but WWII really got the MIC going gangbusters. After the war, the US industrial base was the only game in town. The Marshall Plan got the US corporations – soon to be multi-national corporations – into Europe in a big way. The economic environment put in place by FDR before the war lasted for a while and tgreatly contributed to the general prosperity. Unfortunately, for reasons we all know too well, things went to hell and here we are now. Ruined by our own ¨success¨?

        1. Grayce

          Since war bonds are actually IOUs, was that wartime prosperity the onset of deficit spending and the beginning of debt-based capitalism? Remember, once wealth-based investment had real backing even if for a limited cohort. Debt-based speculation demanded a higher return: a decent profit PLUS the interest on the debt. Do not imagine that a war creates prosperity. It creates the willingness to spend tomorrow’s money today for an emergency. It is in forgetting that there was no financing to begin with that economists conclude that general prosperity is real in real time. Only if the underpinnings are paid for. The invention and acceptance of “inflation” is simply that it is easier to pay back a loan plus interest with inflated dollars.

  7. LAS

    There are many sides to this coin. Some middle class and affluent kids grow up without ever working — which sometimes makes them less effective adult workers; when the time comes some of them have weird expectations of scaling the top without understanding the ground, and they are easily frustrated. Other kids are eager for a chance to intern in skilled trades and learn something to help them get a leg up later on. It’s the kids of poor families (often LatinX) who are over-worked at too young an age in dead-end labor, and sometimes their future is blighted by it. Although I have to say, there are also some LatinX families in New Jersey and the mid-Atlantic that are actually building up good, intelligent small businesses out of their early work experiences.

    What’s going on more largely that bothers me is the attempt to cut down the federal regulatory agencies so that they are less and less powerful and effective in protecting vulnerable people, and less and less capable of meeting their public mandates, freeing some business entities to be more exploitative. This is not very good for the country or most of the public.

    1. Marco Lazaro Guerrero

      “Latinx” is not a thing in Latino culture and i suggest you do not even utter that word in front of Latinos because you will be subject not to ridicule but worse you will be made a joke out of .
      Friendly advice

    2. Grayce

      Anyone who thinks public education’s purpose is to train a workforce to read (instructions), write (time cards) and count (piecework) is part of the problem. Public education’s first purpose is to help develop the native intelligence of citizens. This makes a thoughtful electorate. This allows a good segment of voters to “see” candidates and vote intelligently, then return to work knowing representation is as good as they are. However–big however, that is not happening.

  8. Mikel

    As I said before, child labor is going to need its own water cooler section.
    Or is ‘zeitgeist’ apt?

  9. Carolinian

    In a similar fashion, Hyundai and Kia supply chains depend on children working in Alabama.

    This assertion contains a link

    that has nothing to do with Kia or Hyundai. I believe in two or three instances underage immigrants were found working in ancillary third party parts suppliers for Hyundai. But that’s hardly “depending” on child labor.

    So this article appears to be sloppy on the rhetoric front and the facts as well. Without a doubt the history of child labor during the Industrial Revolution was appalling but if the article is about modern America then it’s likely that in almost all instances like meat packing the exploited are also immigrants. Seems some of those open border advocates may have mixed motives? Bringing in the undocumented makes labor exploitation much more likely and it has always been so. Those meatpacking workers in Sinclair’s The Jungle were also immigrants.

    Here in the South the child labor exploiting cotton mills (mostly run by Northerners) are largely gone and the textile industry sent off to Asia or Central America. We can pass laws to block goods from exploited foreign labor but will that mean the PMC will have to give up their i-Phones?

    1. Erethryna pallida

      Here is some in-depth reporting on the Hyundai operations refered to.

      Pedro Tzi’s children, who have now enrolled for the upcoming school term, were among a larger cohort of underage workers who found jobs at the Hyundai-owned supplier over the past few years, according to interviews with a dozen former and current plant employees and labor recruiters.

      Several of these minors, they said, have foregone schooling in order to work long shifts at the plant, a sprawling facility with a documented history of health and safety violations, including amputation hazards.

      WSWS has more background also.

      Sounds like the experience builds character /s


  10. Kouros

    I don’t have the link, but I remember very vividly reading a post here at NC some years ago about the beggining of industrialization in England and comments from the proponents there, looking for cheap labour, on the effect that a child at 3 or 4 years of age, must start to work to earn his/her keep…

  11. Cristobal

    A very good post about a very troubling subject. I take some exception to Yves´comment that the discussion of the long history of child labor in the US and elsewherre trivializes the subject, making it seem more acceptable. Rather, I think the history of the practice in the US shines a light on who we are. We, as a nation, are tooth and claw, survival of the fittest, hyper liberals like our European predecesors. The opening comment by the aged Native-American chieftain says it all about our society, then and now. It is about the strrong taking advantage of the weak. You can call it free-market capitalism, but what it really is is exploitation, internal imperialism. For a brief period the US and Europe tried to build a more eglatarian society that considered the present and future common good. For whatever reason, that era has passed. Now that it is getting more difficult and expensive to find little brown people abroad to work for pennies, we have to go back to our origins. It is a clear sign of our decline as a nation.

    That is not to say that child labor is all bad, Beginning at about 15 or so I too had a variety of little jobs (paper route, lawn mowing, snow shoveling, a brief stint as a diswasher, etc), and summer jobs nearly every year. And don´t talk about child farm workers. Those young children and their rparents were all in it together (and in many Amish and Menonite communities it still is accepted practice). They were not working for the Man, for wages. These experiences are often used by the aplogists for child labor to insist that it is really a good thing. It is also true that some – many – families need the income. What is inexcusable in a decent country is taking the leash off the practice and permitting the exploiters to have free rein. There should be rules: a minimum age for workers, workers under a certain age should attend school, younger workers should be paid the same as the rest. I am afraid, though, that the attempts to regulate the practice will not be very succesffull. The root of the problem is the growing income and class divide in our once great country. Internal imperialism. We are now eating our young.

    1. Grayce

      If we allow for-profit charter schools to receive tax-paid voucher money–thank you Betsy DeVos for promoting it–then the chance for decent public schools disappears. Let us retire the idea that competition makes everything better. Profit-taking from schools will beget CFOs writing curriculum.

  12. TomW

    Kids frequently like paid work more than school. They especially like earning ‘their own’ money. Talk to them.
    So what? Just something to think about.
    I would say, first…make school more fun. Education is run by, and to a great extent for the needs and interests of teacher’s, who are represented by unions.
    Kids mostly like growing up on farms. Industrial work isn’t the greatest…but people never tire of complaining of US deindustrialization.
    Secondly…child labor regulations are for the benefit of a lot of interests other than children.
    Just saying.

    1. semper loquitur

      “Education is run by, and to a great extent for the needs and interests of teacher’s, who are represented by unions.”

      This is ludicrous, in a word. Teachers in the public schools are often at odds with their union, which lies to them and connives with the powers that be on the local, state and federal levels. I know of it anecdotally here in NYC from real live teachers. The union conspired with the city to crappify the teacher’s healthcare.

      Do you think Randy Weingarten has the teacher’s backs? Please.

    2. Ridgewood

      Where I live the teacher’s union bureaucracy hardly comes across as representing the interests of teachers.
      Beyond pay increases, it is virtually silent.

      The schools are dumps, that is never discussed.

      Students are unruly and indisciplined, I can’t remember the union bringing up the personal safety of it’s members.

  13. Steven A

    “Legislators offer fatuous justifications for such incursions into long-settled practice . . . it will strip the government of the power to dictate what children can and can’t do, leaving parents in control — a claim already transformed into fantasy by efforts to strip away protective legislation and permit 14-year-old kids to work without formal parental permission.”

    The next target: compulsory education laws?

    A digression (relevant dialogue starts at 2:00):

  14. Jason Boxman

    The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-2022 created a brief labor shortage

    COVID minimization kind of a shame. Last I checked, it ain’t over.

  15. Merf56

    I am more than a little horrified at some of the thinly veiled but clearly pro child labor comments on this piece. The idea it didn’t kill grandpa to quit school at 10 and dig coal ( never mind he likely died at 50 from black lung) is certainly not what I expected from NC readers!
    Excellent piece though I agree with Yves re describing the widespread acceptance of child labor. That can easily be used as an excuse that it ‘must not have been all that bad if everyone was doing it ’ and pave the way for its return- albeit modified.
    Let’s hope we never get to the point where we think farming out 3-and 17 yr olds to work and not getting an education to boot is seen as remotely acceptable

    1. pallidus

      The exposure to such views can be useful tho? An opportunity to hone one’s rebuttal skills; keep counter arguments fresh in the memory.

  16. Brooklin Bridge

    Dickens to the courtesy booth, and quickly please!

    In Massachusetts, not far from Lowell or Lawrence (some say the birth places of labor laws) in the 50’s, I distinctly remember child labor was considered somewhere between pedophilia and slavery in both public and private education, or at least by those teachers I had, but without exception. It was, no if ands or buts, a grimly dark spot on our history that we had moved beyond, the way our country was vaunted to have moved beyond kings and queens, and enough time was spent drilling that into us. It was part of the foundation of what made us so damned special.

    To think the practice of child labor is now in any way acceptable by those in my generation or those coming after, even from the bubbling slime we euphemistically call politicians or titans of commerce, is simply mind boggling.

    1. JBird4049

      The Neoliberal establishment’s propaganda is both a marvel and a horror to see, isn’t? Their efforts have changed the water that we American fish swim in and making very, almost impossibly, hard to actually see what is happening.

  17. ChrisRUEcon

    Thanks for this. Horrible. Horrible. Horrible. Unsurprising to see usual suspects like CATO and Blackrock showing up. I hope that shining a light on this will help reverse the trend.

Comments are closed.