The Dangerous Race to Put More Children to Work

In February, the Department of Labor announced that it had discovered 102 teenagers working in hazardous conditions for a company that cleans meatpacking equipment at factories around the country, a violation of federal standards. The minors, ages 13 to 17, were working with dangerous chemicals and cleaning brisket saws and head splitters; three of them suffered injuries, including one with caustic burns.

Ten of those children worked in Arkansas, including six at a factory owned by the state’s second-largest private employer, Tyson Foods. Rather than taking immediate action to tighten standards and prevent further exploitation of children, Arkansas went the opposite direction. Earlier this month, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Republican, signed legislation that would actually make it easier for companies to put children to work. The bill eliminated a requirement that children under 16 get a state work permit before being employed, a process that required them to verify their age and get the permission of a parent or guardian.

Arkansas is at the vanguard of a concerted effort by business lobbyists and Republican legislators to roll back federal and state regulations that have been in place for decades to protect children from abuse. Echoing that philosophy, bills are moving through at least nine other state legislatures that would expand work hours for children, lift restrictions on hazardous occupations, allow them to work in locations that serve alcohol, or lower the state minimum wage for minors. The Labor Department says there has been a 69 percent increase since 2018 in the illegal employment of children.

The response in these states is not to protect those children from exploitation, but instead to make it legal. Voters in these states may support deregulation, but they may not know that businesses can use these bills to work children harder, cut their wages and put them in danger. There is time for them to persuade lawmakers to say no to these abuses.

Ms. Sanders, formerly the press secretary for President Donald Trump, made clear in her inaugural address in January the disdain for the protective role of government that is driving this effort. “As long as I am your governor, the meddling hand of big government creeping down from Washington, D.C., will be stopped cold at the Mississippi River,” she said. “We will get the overregulating, micromanaging, bureaucratic tyrants off of your backs, out of your wallets and out of your lives.”

Lawmakers in these states have been vigorously lobbied by industry groups who like the flexibility of teenage employees and say that more children are needed in the work force to make up for labor shortages. One of the principal lobbying organizations pushing these bills in several states is the National Federation of Independent Business, a conservative group that supports Republican candidates and has long opposed most forms of regulation, as well as the Affordable Care Act. It has issued news releases praising lawmakers for passing bills that let businesses hire more minors for longer hours, and taking credit for supporting these efforts.

The Arkansas governor’s spokesperson said in a statement that the work permit requirement was “an arbitrary burden on parents,” but opponents noted that many child workers don’t have parents or guardians to look after their interests. In the cleaning company case, several of the child workers were unaccompanied minors who recently came over the southern border, according to their lawyers. Soon, they won’t even have the state to approve their employment or working conditions.

The real target of these rollbacks is not after-school jobs at the corner hardware store; they will have a much bigger effect on a labor force that includes many unaccompanied migrant children who work long hours to make or package products sold by big companies like General Mills, J. Crew, Target, Whole Foods and PepsiCo. As a recent New York Times investigation documented, children are being widely employed across the country in exhausting and often dangerous jobs working for some of the biggest names in American retailing and manufacturing. (Several of those companies later told The Times that they would investigate any illegal practices and try to end them.)

Hundreds of children described in the Times report were working in violation of federal labor standards, which bar child workers from a long list of hazardous jobs and forbid children under 16 from working more than three hours a day or after 7 p.m. on school days unless they work on a farm. (Those under 14 are prohibited from working in all but a handful of jobs.)

Many of the minors crossed unaccompanied from Latin American countries and may not know when their employment violates the law. A 13-year-old who was burned with caustic chemicals while working for Packers Sanitation Services in Nebraska told investigators the accident occurred during a shift that lasted from 11 p.m. to 5 or 7 a.m., a direct violation of multiple federal laws. The Labor Department imposed a $1.5 million fine on the cleaning company, which is owned by Blackstone, one of the world’s largest private equity firms.

Despite the evidence that more children are being exploited and hurt in this way, state lawmakers are passing bills that defy the federal standards. They are inviting a court challenge, and, in effect, daring the Labor Department to come after them, knowing the department often lacks the manpower to prevent violations of federal law. The Ohio Senate, which passed a bill earlier this month extending working hours for minors under 16, in violation of federal standards, also approved a resolution urging Congress to do the same.

One of the worst bills, introduced by Republicans in Iowa, would allow 14-year-olds to work in industrial freezers, meat coolers and industrial laundries, and 15-year-olds to lift heavy items onto shelves. It is backed by, among others, the independent business federation, the Iowa Grocery Industry Association, and Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group backed by Charles Koch, the industrialist who supported many national efforts to deregulate businesses.

If states will not perform a role that has been fundamental for a century — protecting workers from abuse — the federal government will have to increase its efforts to do so. After the Times investigation was published, the Biden administration announced a series of new efforts to crack down on illegal child labor, many of which hold promise as possible deterrents.

The Labor Department said it would intensify its investigations of business violations, not just by direct employers of children but also by the larger companies that contract with those employers, or that use children in their supply chain. In many cases, big companies use contractors or staffing agencies to hire children and then claim they had nothing to do with the abuses. Some of those agencies shut down and reopen under new names when they are fined, said Meredith Stewart, a senior supervising attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center. The companies that hire them should be held accountable. The department also has the authority to seize any products that are made using illegal child labor, even through the use of contractors. Seema Nanda, the department’s chief legal officer, said in an interview that it would use that authority aggressively, as well as every other litigation tool available.

The administration also said it would do more to coordinate the protection of children, particularly those who migrate across the border unaccompanied by a parent and then receive little supervision once they leave immigration shelters. In some cases, The Times reported, H.H.S. has lost touch with designated sponsors and the children themselves, leaving them vulnerable to sex trafficking or other criminal exploitation.

The administration lacks all the tools to do the job right. Because its budget has been held flat by Congress, the Wage and Hour Division lost 12 percent of its staff between 2010 and 2019, and Ms. Nanda’s office lost more than 100 lawyers, so the Labor Department doesn’t have enough investigators to effectively pursue illegal child labor practices. In addition, under current law, the maximum fine for a labor violation by a company is $15,138 per child — often little more than the cost of doing business for big companies.

Comprehensive immigration reform would be the best insurance that migrant children have the protections they need. If families can stay together, minors will be less vulnerable to abuse and better able to seek legal protection.

The administration has asked Congress for more enforcement money in its current budget, and for higher penalties. Neither request is likely to be granted, and immigration reform seems far in the distance. Protections against “oppressive child labor,” however, have been part of American law since the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938; dismantling those safeguards now puts young lives at risk.

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