Maybe you had to read The Jungle in school. We did. Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel describes the dangerous lives of poor immigrants struggling to survive in Chicago. It evokes an era when the government mostly ignored abusive working conditions, including working conditions for children.
Today, some businesses are having trouble finding workers, because they don’t pay enough and/or the jobs stink. Republicans around the country have an idea: weaken child labor laws.
In 2023. From The New York Times:
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….
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….
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 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….
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…..
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 administration lacks all the tools to do the job right, however. 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.
Greg Sargent of The Washington Post discusses the immigration aspect of this story:
But here the right’s argument veers into deception. For instance, [the] claim that Health and Human Services [HHS] doesn’t care that nearly 90,000 kids have been “lost” to “slavery” is wildly absurd….
HHS does a follow-up call to sponsors to check on kids, and in the past two years, 85,000 such calls went unanswered. But an HHS spokesperson says sponsors and kids are not required to answer checkup calls; we only know sponsors didn’t pick up the phone, nothing more. (Hundreds of thousands of minors have crossed the border, and HHS says 81 percent of follow-ups are answered, so unanswered calls are not representative of the situation.)
Nor is there any basis to conclude that those unreached kids correlate with those who end up in exploitative situations….
The alternative to admission is not letting these kids into the country at all. Many of the parents and relatives who make the wrenching decision to send them unaccompanied into this country do so while knowing their fate in the United States will be uncertain, and weigh this against what they deem the worse alternative: Keeping kids in horrible situations at home.
Republicans … want that worse option to be the only one available. They want a restoration of the [policy] that largely banned asylum seeking for children as well as adults.
If Republicans actually care about the plight of migrant children in the United States, they might argue that HHS must do more to track them with, say, more follow-up calls or visits. They might argue that the Labor Department — which recently expanded enforcement against child labor law violations — must crack down even harder. Those are reasonable grounds for pressuring the administration to do better.
But Republicans don’t make those arguments. After all, this would entail calling for government to function better at settling migrant kids and policing unscrupulous employers — not things Republicans want to see happen.
This gets to the core of the deeper differences between the left and right: Each side defines the underlying problem differently. Most liberals believe barring migrant kids from entering is far more cruel than admitting them, even if admission in some cases leads to bad outcomes. For liberals, the problem is that more must be done to assure humane settlement of kids and crack down on their exploiters.
To some of these Republicans, by contrast, the problem is that unaccompanied kids are allowed in to begin with. Admitting them and settling them more humanely isn’t a solution; “solving” the child labor problem must inherently entail shutting that migration down.
On one hand, Republicans are loosening child labor laws. On the other, they’re against letting unaccompanied minors into the country, supposedly to protect them from abusive working conditions. But those are the very conditions child labor laws address.
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