In 2023, the issue of child labor re-emerged as a national crisis. Federal data on the rise of child labor violations and numerous investigative reports of widespread illegal youth employment garnered sustained media attention, sparking outrage from the public and lawmakers alike. At the same time, EPI has documented an ongoing, coordinated effort to roll back existing child labor protections that is gaining momentum in states across the country. Legislative proposals to weaken child labor protections—some of which have already been enacted—allow employers to hire teens for more dangerous jobs or extend the hours young people can work on school nights.
In a March 14 report, we documented how states across the country are attempting to weaken child labor protections, just as violations of these standards are on the rise. The trend reflects a coordinated multi-industry push to expand employer access to low-wage labor and weaken state child labor laws in ways that contradict federal protections. And the recent uptick in state legislative activity is linked to longer-term industry-backed goals to rewrite federal child labor laws and other worker protections for the whole country. Last Friday, this concerted attack on child labor safeguards further expanded. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed an expansive bill enacting numerous changes to the state’s child labor laws.
America’s social studies textbooks urgently need an update — on child labor. Our textbooks, ever since the middle of the 20th century, have been applauding the reform movement that gradually put an end to the child-labor horrors that ran widespread throughout the early Industrial Age. Now those horrors, here in the 21st century, are reappearing. The number of kids employed in direct violation of existing child labor laws, analysts at the Economic Policy Institute this past March reported, has soared 283 percent since 2015 — and 37 percent in just the last year alone. Last week brought the alarming news that three Kentucky-based McDonald’s franchises had kids as young as 10 working at 62 stores in four different states.
Republicans have been waging a push in recent months to pass bills weakening child labor protections. But even though these bills are being pushed across several states, a new investigation finds that a right-wing, Florida-based think tank is behind a large number of them — and that the think tank, in some cases, outright wrote the bills. According to The Washington Post, the Foundation for Government Accountability and its lobbying arm, the Opportunity Solutions Project, are behind pushes for child labor bills introduced by Republicans in Arkansas, Iowa and Missouri.
Many assume that child labor in the US is a remnant of the past. In reality, child labor is a hidden crisis. Children of the working class are frequently exploited with devastating consequences, including injury and death. Child labor violations are on the uptick, with migrant children at special risk of being put into dangerous occupations at a young age. At the same time, lawmakers across the country, sponsored by industry giants, are trying to worsen the existing tragedy. In Iowa, the State Senate just passed one of the most extreme pro-child labor bills in recent times. SF 167, introduced by State Senator Jason Schultz, lifts restrictions on hazardous work, extends work hours, and lowers the age for child workers serving alcohol to adults.
While we Americans like to believe that child labor is a thing of the past, an antiquated detail of a dark history that is safely in our rearview mirror, the sad reality is that, even today, in the year of our Lord 2023, the exploitation of children and their labor continues to be a dismal feature throughout the production and supply chains behind many of our favorite brands and companies, including Lucky Charms, Cheetos, Walmart, Target, Whole Foods, Fruit of the Loom, Ben and Jerry’s, etc. There are kids farming the produce that we buy in the supermarket, kids making the parts that end up in our cars, kids cleaning industrial bone saws, office buildings, and houses, kids on construction sites and in the backs of restaurants.
Science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, authors of the classic 2010 book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, have released a new book placing that doubt machine into a longer arc of U.S. business and political history. The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market explores an even more ambitious history dating from the dawn of the 20th century to the present day. The book documents how today’s prevailing anti-regulatory and anti-government postures that deride Big Government and cheer for Big Business did not arise simply from grassroots demands.
On July 22, Reuters revealed that a subsidiary of auto giant Hyundai, SMART, had been employing migrant children in Luverne, Alabama. Reuters learned of the underage labor exploitation through local police, the family of three child workers, and eight former and current employees of the subsidiary’s plant. Interviews with former employees and labor recruiters revealed that many minors employed at the plant went without schooling in favor of work. A former worker claimed that the plant, which, according to Reuters, has a “documented history of health and safety violations, including amputation hazards”, employs as many as 50 children. Both Hyundai and SMART deny any responsibility. Hyundai said in a statement that it “does not tolerate illegal employment practices at any Hyundai entity.
Last Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether the world’s largest cocoa corporations are liable for child slavery in their supply chains. For 15 years, six citizens of Mali who were trafficked as children to work on cocoa farms have sought legal damages from Cargill and Nestle USA under a 240-year-old anti-piracy law. The plaintiffs’ attorney told the court that the corporations “maintain a system of child slavery and forced labor in their Ivory Coast supply chain as a matter of corporate policy to gain a competitive advantage in the U.S. market.”