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American Child Labor

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The history of child labor is well-known, in no small part thanks to the powerful photographs of Lewis Hine that went so far in convincing people that maybe kids should be in school instead of the mines and factories. The problem with this narrative though is that the nation has always had plenty of child labor and still does today. For this, you can thank the South, which would not pass the Fair Labor Standards Act, which ended most child labor among many other things, if it would impede the traditional use of Black labor in the South in any way, shape, or form. So all the things that Black workers did in the South were exempted from the bill. Unfortunately, the FLSA was the last time this nation passed comprehensive pro-worker labor legislation and that is now a mere 84 years ago. And so there are still many, many children working in our fields today:

With limited progress on the constitutional amendment, child labor restrictions were rolled into wider contested New Deal labor changes and stalled in Congress. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that emerged in 1938 from a Congress divided on the issue, allowing the secretary of labor to impose a minimum wage and age-based maximum hours, but it exempted agriculture, transportation and local retail. As a result, when the FLSA was signed into law, it restricted predominantly White child labor in Northeastern industry but left predominantly non-White agricultural child labor in the West and South unchecked. This compromise reflected the power of senior Southern legislators in Congress — who had disproportionate influence due to seniority thanks to the one-party nature of the South.

The exemptions made in the FLSA still apply today so child labor remains the status quoin agriculture where children as young as 10 can work part-time and children aged 12 can work full-time. The children come from predominantly immigrant and non-White backgrounds — and their work remains exempt from a federal ban on children working in “hazardous” occupations. Child agricultural workers are exposed to dangerous machines, extreme heat and pesticides; when the EPA determines the safety of substances, it does not consider the presence of children and the lower tolerances of smaller bodies. One hundred thousand child farmworkers are estimated to be injured on the job each year and children represent 20 percent of farming fatalities: a child dies every three days in U.S. agriculture, according to the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety.

Around a quarter of U.S. domestic produce is picked by an army of child workers who numbered an estimated 500,000 in 2021. As young Morris Spector said in 1925, “the blood and bones of little children” are still coined into profit as modern agribusiness exploits a 1938 compromise rooted in the regional and racial inequalities of New Deal reforms. Child labor remains intrinsic to the U.S. economy and officials engage in hypocrisy when they condemn it abroad.

Only a half-million kids! But I mean, a lot of them are brown and also what if the price of lettuce goes up by 10 cents? I’d better vote for the fascists next week!

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