American children are working hazardous jobs – and it’s about to get worse | Robert Reich

When I was secretary of labor 30 years ago, one major goal was to crack down on companies that employed children, in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. I remember being horrified to discover that even in the early 1990s, children who should have been in school were working, often in dangerous jobs.

We made progress. Child labor declined in the United States. But it was a hard slog. By law, the highest fines I could levy against companies that put children to work were relatively small. Some firms treated them as costs of business.

Other businesses dragged their feet. The US Chamber of Commerce and other corporate lobbying groups argued that almost any minimum standard of decency at work – whether barring child labor, setting a minimum wage, or requiring employers to install safety equipment – was an intrusion on the so-called “free market” and therefore a “job killer”.

My argument was that the nation’s goal was not just more jobs; it was more good jobs, safe jobs, jobs that allowed kids to go to school, jobs that upheld minimum standards of decency.

In the years since then, I’ve assumed that progress was continuing on eliminating child labor in America. Sadly, I was wrong.

Serious child labor violations are once again on the rise, including in hazardous meatpacking and manufacturing jobs. Children are working with chemicals and dangerous equipment. They are also working night shifts.

In just the last year, the number of children employed in violation of child labor laws increased 37%, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

You might think that in the face of this mounting problem, lawmakers around the country would rush to protect these children.

You’d be wrong. In fact, state legislatures are rushing in the opposite direction, seeking to weaken child labor protections.

This month, after young children were found working at a factory owned by Arkansas’s second-largest private employer, Tyson Foods, the Republican governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, signed legislation making it easier for companies to employ children – eliminating a requirement that children under 16 get a state work permit before being employed.

In the past two years, 10 states have introduced or passed legislation expanding work hours for children, lifting restrictions on hazardous occupations for children, allowing children to work in locations that serve alcohol, and lowering the state minimum wage for minors.

Already in 2023, bills to weaken child labor protections have been introduced in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota. One bill introduced in Minnesota would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work on construction sites.

Across the country, we’re seeing a coordinated effort by business lobbyists and Republican legislators to roll back federal and state regulations to protect children from abuse – regulations that had been in place for decades.

Why is this going on now? Four reasons.

Since the surge in post-pandemic consumer demand, employers have been having difficulty finding the workers they need at the wages employers are willing to pay. Rather than pay more, employers are exploiting children. And state lawmakers who are dependent on those employers (such as Tyson) for campaign donations have been willing to let them.

A second reason is that the children who are being exploited are considered to be “them” rather than “us” – disproportionately poor, Black, Hispanic and immigrant. So the moral shame of subjecting “our” children to inhumane working conditions when they ought to be in school is quietly avoided, while lawmakers and voters look the other way.

We are witnessing across America a resurgence of cruel capitalism – a form of social Darwinism

Third, some of these children (or their parents) are undocumented. They dare not speak out. They need the money. This makes them vulnerable and easily exploited.

Finally, we are witnessing across America a resurgence of cruel capitalism – a form of social Darwinism – in which business lobbyists and lawmakers justify their actions by arguing that they are not exploiting the weak and vulnerable, but rather providing jobs for those who need them and would otherwise go hungry or homeless.

Conveniently, these same business lobbyists and lawmakers are among the first to claim we “can’t afford” stronger safety nets that would provide these children with safe housing and adequate nutrition.

Yet when it comes to handouts from the government in the form of tax loopholes, subsidies and bailouts, these same business lobbyists and lawmakers claim that the nation can easily afford them and that businesses need and deserve them.

Obviously, the Department of Labor needs more inspectors and authority to levy higher fines. But that’s not all that’s needed.

America seems to be lurching backward to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when workers – including young children – were treated like cow dung and robber barons ruled the roost. The public must demand that child labor once again be relegated to the dustbin of history.

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