Child labor is back. The Labor Department’s wage and hour division recorded a 37 percent increase in 2022 in the number of minors employed in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which outlawed most child labor way back in 1938 and imposed strict limits on the rest. The 37 percent increase was over the previous year. Over the previous decade, the number of minors employed in violation of the act was up 140 percent.
The surge in child labor reverses what had been, for most of the past 20 years, a significant decline in the number of minors employed in violation of the FLSA. Nobody knows exactly why the numbers started to climb in 2015, but probably it was because the labor market was getting tight. The unemployment rate, which had been falling since 2010, dropped in 2015 to 5 percent, which was then considered full employment. Workers were getting hard to find. The unemployment rate has since fallen further to 3.4 percent.
The violations began piling up just as Republican state legislators, many of them newly in the majority, went on the attack against child labor restrictions, pressing in various ways to expand the number of work hours and work settings available to teenagers aged 14 to 17. (With exceptions for farm families, child actors, and a few others, child labor under age 14 is illegal.) One Wisconsin bill went so far as to ban the phrase “child labor” from state employment statutes, requiring that the offending term be replaced by “employment of minors.” A bill introduced in Iowa last month would allow 14-year-olds to work in meatpacking plants. If the youngster gets hurt due to his own negligence (whatever that means at 14), the meatpacker will be indemnified against civil liability.
Only a few of these Dickensian pro-child-labor bills got enacted, but some did. In June, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu signed into law a bill that allows 14-year-old busboys to clear tables where liquor is served and expands from 30 to 35 the number of hours 16- and 17-year-olds may work during the school year. These restrictions had “become too cumbersome,” New Hampshire Deputy Labor Commissioner Rudolph Ogden explained to The New Hampshire Bulletin. Sununu is weighing a presidential bid in 2024. Working campaign slogan: Bring Back Warren’s Blacking Factory. (Just kidding.)
With this political backdrop, it’s little wonder that an investigation published Saturday by Hannah Dreier of The New York Times revealed a “shadow work force” of migrant children “across industries in every state”: 12-year-old roofers in Florida and Tennessee; 13-year-old girls washing hotel sheets in Virginia; a 13-year-old boy in Michigan making auto parts on an overnight shift that ends at 6:30 a.m.; a 12-year-old working for a Hyundai subsidiary in Alabama (this last courtesy of Reuters). The good news is that the Cheetos you’re snacking on or the Fruit of the Loom socks warming your feet may have been manufactured right here in the United States. The bad news is that they may have been made with child labor. It’s no longer just a Third World practice, or a bad memory from How the Other Half Lives.
You add to that a tight labor market and the Republican Party also being a proto-fascist (if we can still call them “proto”) white supremacist party and you have the perfect storm for sending 12 year olds into the fields.