Monday Jun 05

Spring 2023

EVERYBODY’S BUSINESS - 21st Century Child Labor

At a time of widespread labor shortages, one might expect policymakers to welcome asylum seekers and economic migrants eager for an opportunity to make a living in the United States. Instead, legislators in some states have come up with a harebrained proposal for filling those jobs: loosening the restrictions on child labor.

Lawmakers in Wisconsin lifted restrictions on working hours during the school year, but the measure was vetoed by the governor. The Ohio Senate passed a similar bill but it died in the House. Even worse are bills introduced in Iowa and Minnesota that would allow teens as young as 14 to work in dangerous occupations such as meatpacking and construction.

It is unclear whether these legislators are aware that labor activists and social reformers fought for many years in the 19th and early 20th centuries to restrict the exploitation of children in factories, mines, mills and other workplaces. They eventually made progress at the state level, leading to the passage of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. The FLSA barred young workers from some occupations and limited the hours they could work in others, both for safety reasons and to prevent adverse effects on educational attainment. Adoption of strong child labor laws came to be viewed as one of the hallmarks of a humane society.

While the FLSA and state regulations eliminated the worst forms of child labor, they did not eliminate abuses entirely. Violation Tracker documents more than 4,000 cases over the past two decades in which an employer paid a penalty for breaking the rules. The fines imposed in these cases amount to about $100 million, or an average of about $25,000 per case—a reflection of the fact that penalty levels are far from harsh.

Most child labor violators are small firms, but some large corporations have committed the offense. Chipotle Mexican Grill has the highest penalty total, mainly due to a $7.75 million settlement the company reached in 2022 with the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development. An audit conducted by the agency of Chipotle outlets had found over 30,000 violations across the state. Two years earlier, Chipotle reached a $1.87 million settlement with the Massachusetts Attorney General over child labor and other wage and hour violations.

Among the other big companies with substantial child labor penalties from multiple cases are: CVS Health, Albertsons and Walmart.

Most child labor violations are related to potential harm to young workers, but there are also cases in which the harm is real and even deadly. A 2018 report by the Government Accountability Office cited estimates that workers aged 17 and under sustain thousands of injuries each year. That same report included data showing that work-related fatalities for the same age group totaled 452 for the period from 2003 to 2016. The largest numbers of deaths were in agriculture, followed by construction and mining.

The abuse of child labor in hazardous jobs was made clear in an announcement in February by the U.S. Labor Department that it was fining Packers Sanitation Services Inc. $1.5 million for employing over 100 children as young as 13 to work overnight shifts in meatpacking plants in eight states. The work involved using hazardous chemicals to sanitize razor-sharp saws and other dangerous equipment.

A few days after that announcement, the New York Times published a lengthy investigation of child labor carried out by young migrants who come to the United States without their parents and are placed with relatives or other sponsors. The Times found that many of the minors are pressured by their sponsor or their family back home to find work. They often end up in exploitative and dangerous jobs provided by employers willing to ignore child labor regulations.

The Times highlighted the situation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where large numbers of migrant minors have been working in a factory operated by the food processing giant Hearthside Food Solutions, which manufactures and packages products for corporations such as Frito-Lay, General Mills and Quaker Oats. According to The Times, Hearthside turned a blind eye to the fact that employment agencies were providing under-age workers, some of whom had dropped out of school and others who were toiling long hours after school.

The sensible response to these revelations would be to tighten the regulations regarding child labor, not to weaken them. This should include penalties for companies using staffing agencies that flout the rules. Exploiting vulnerable youngsters is not the way to address labor shortages.

PHILIP MATTERA heads the Corporate Research Project in Washington, DC, and writes the blog Dirt Diggers Digest.