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Child labor, often thought of as a problem only in other countries, is making headlines in the United States following a wave of Republican-led efforts to roll back protections in several states, most recently in Iowa. Proponents of the legislation claim that extending working hours for children, eliminating work permit requirements, and lowering the minimum age for teens to work in certain industries would reduce red tape and protect the rights of parents without putting children at risk. But experts say this narrative is impossible to reconcile with the reality of child labor in the nation, which has been grim for decades and is only worsening.
“It is very concerning,” says Reid Maki, director of child labor issues and coordinator at the Child Labor Coalition (CLC). Having worked on child labor protections for decades, Maki says he has seen the negative impacts of labor on childhood health and development, academic success, and socialization. “There are so many reasons that kids should not be allowed to work,” he says.
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The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines child labor as work that deprives children of their childhood, potential, and dignity; is harmful to their physical and mental development; and interferes with their schooling. Using similar definitions, organizations including the CLC and Human Rights Watch, have condemned the prevalence of child labor in the U.S. and called on Congress to strengthen protections. Instead, the issue is intensifying. The U.S. Department of Labor’s wage and hour division recorded a 37% increase in the number of minors employed in violation of federal law from 2021 to 2022.
Current restrictions on child labor in the U.S. are outlined in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which contains significant loopholes allowing children as young as 10 years old to be hired as farmworkers, even on commercial farms. This means that in addition to children laboring in violation of federal law, hundreds of thousands more work legally in jobs that experts say are detrimental to their health and development. Unlike the ILO, the U.S. labor department defines child labor in strictly legal terms as “work below the minimum age for work, as established in national legislation,” thus shifting the focus away from child well-being and excluding child farmworkers in the U.S. According to various estimates, there are anywhere between 300,000 and 800,000 minor farmworkers in the U.S. today, including an unknown number employed in violation of the law.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing problems. One ongoing study based on interviews with Latinx farmworker families in North Carolina has found that many children worked more during the pandemic to support their families, or even because they felt disengaged from school or bored and isolated at home. Several children have reported experiencing periods during which their families could not afford groceries, which increased the pressure they felt to work. “The pandemic made things worse for these families that already experienced many challenges,” says Taylor Arnold, a Ph.D. candidate studying public health education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the lead researcher on the study. The pandemic has had other widespread effects on the U.S. workforce, and claims of labor shortages are driving young people to work in growing numbers.
Rather than supporting families and protecting children from being forced onto the labor market, the recent Republican-led push would weaken protections in several states. According to the Minnesota Reformer, lawmakers in 11 states have either passed or introduced laws to roll back child labor protections.
Arnold says that interventions to combat this assault on child labor protections should focus on the root causes of child labor, including structural vulnerability and low wages. He also says that funding programs to support vulnerable populations, such as the Migrant Education Program, could mitigate some of the harms that child workers face.
While there aren’t exact numbers, experts agree that the vast majority of children employed in the U.S. are migrants or from migrant families. A recent exposé from The New York Times revealed a “shadow work force” of migrant children working across industries in every state, many in hours-long shifts, sometimes overnight, with hazardous equipment and potent chemicals.
“These children are vulnerable to exploitation because they are on the margins, their families are on the margins, and they have very little access to public benefits or protections—legally or sustenance-wise,” says Mary Miller Flowers, director of policy and legislative affairs at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.
Miller Flowers says ensuring respect for the best interests of migrant children begins with keeping families together. “That starts at the border with our immigration policy, because whenever you exclude adults from seeking protection, you further vulnerabilize their children,” she says. The Young Center also supports expanding community-based and peer-led newcomer or cultural navigator programs that help migrant children and families access economic, social, and civic support without increasing surveillance or placing additional administrative burdens on families.
Ultimately, though, researchers, advocates, and other experts agree that bolstering federal legislation on child labor is the best way to prevent children from being forced into the workforce. It is also the surest way to protect kids in the face of Republican-led efforts to weaken restrictions on child labor in some states, because employers nationwide must follow federal employment law.
A bill that would amend the FLSA to close loopholes allowing children employed in agriculture to work longer hours, at younger ages, and in more hazardous conditions than those in other industries has already been introduced in Congress multiple times, but each time has failed to reach a floor vote. The bill is called the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety, or CARE Act, and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a California Democrat, has introduced it 10 times during her two-decade career.
Maki says the bill has failed to move forward because child labor is a stubborn partisan issue. “It is popular with progressive legislators, but it is not bipartisan.” Of the 10 bills’ cumulative 365 co-sponsors, only one has been a Republican. The bill garnered the most co-sponsors in 2009, during the first year of the Obama administration. In 2011, the administration also proposed new rules that would have required children under age 16 to take a training course before operating most power-driven farm equipment, and would have banned those under 18 from working in feedlots, grain bins, and stockyards. But the proposal faced staunch opposition from right-wing lawmakers and agricultural lobbyists, and the administration withdrew the bill in the lead-up to the 2012 election.
“Part of the challenge is that farmers have always had a wholesome image,” says Maki. “But the reality is that these are dangerous work environments.” According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, agribusiness leads all industries for work-related child fatalities. From 2003 to 2016, 52 percent of work-related deaths recorded among minors in the U.S. occurred in agriculture.
Sara Quandt and Thomas Arcury, professors of family and community medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, have been researching child workers for years. Arcury says the image of the small all-American family farm is little more than a myth. Most farmworkers labor on commercial farms. The pair have also studied children working on local-producer farms that sell directly to consumers. “There is a lot of risk for them, and the injuries are notable,” says Quandt.
Nonetheless, the idea of the wholesome family farm is potent and shapes federal legislation. Historian Betsy Wood, author of Upon the Altar of Work: Child Labor and the Rise of a New American Sectionalism, says the family farm has been coming up in debates about child labor in the U.S. for more than a century. Beginning in the 1920s, while Northern reformers were intent on amending the Constitution to allow Congress to regulate child labor, Southern opponents were able to gain allies who were more concerned about government interference in family life.
“The new battle broke down largely along urban-rural lines,” says Wood, as farm families across the rural U.S. bought into the fear that the planned amendment “was a surreptitious effort to interfere with parental rights.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because the issue continues to break down along similar lines today, and opposition figures employ similar rhetoric. For example, recent legislation passed in Arkansas eliminating requirements for children to secure work permits before employment promises to “restore decision-making to parents concerning their children.”
To push the nation toward policy change, many organizations raise awareness within communities where these talking points hold sway. Julie Taylor is the executive director of the National Farm Worker Ministry, a faith-based organization that supports farmworker organizing. One aspect of the group’s work is outreach, and Taylor says the issue of parental rights often arises. When talking about restrictions on child labor, she finds that many imagine children working a few hours after school in a safe environment rather than performing grueling agricultural labor. “We challenge those ideas and illustrate the realities that we hear through our farmworker partners,” she explains.
While current debates about child labor rehash century-old talking points, Wood says she also recognizes an alarming new trend. “Instead of just trying to prevent new regulations, these efforts are going on the offense to overturn existing protections,” she says. “It indicates a new confidence and ambition in deregulation efforts that we haven’t seen in many years.”
Those working to improve child labor protections agree the current situation is worrying, but they also hope that renewed attention to the issue could push the needle toward change. “We’re hoping that all of this attention will focus enough energy into the area that we will be able to enact protections,” says Maki. “There has been very little positive change in the last 20 years, and it’s long past time for protections to be enacted.”
Marianne Dhenin is a YES! Media contributing writer. She covers social and environmental justice and politics.