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Child Labor Could Solve Alabama’s “Labor Shortage,” Says GOP Group

The Alabama Policy Institute wants to loosen child labor laws to address a labor shortage caused by too-low pay.

Fast food workers protest at the closed Popeyes Louisiana Chicken on International Boulevard in Oakland, California, on May 18, 2023.

On January 16, the Alabama Policy Institute (API), a right-wing think tank, published a sort of reactionary wish list: a 2024 “BluePrint [sic] for Alabama” containing 30 policy priorities for the state’s right wing. Among familiar conservative touchstones (ensuring tax “relief” for corporations and the rich; attacking diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives along with COVID restrictions and medication abortion; “protecting” children from “explicit library materials”; and “resist[ing] Medicaid expansion”) could be found a proposal that, until relatively recently, might have seemed radically anachronistic — preposterous, even.

Yet API’s suggestion was fully in accordance with recent tendencies on the U.S. right, which has embarked on a campaign to (in the institute’s euphemistic turn of phrase) “remove barriers for minor work authorization.” Alabama, the report’s writers insist, is in the midst of a labor shortage. Who better to conscript into the depleted ranks of the workforce than the state’s surplus 14- and 15-year-olds?

Appalling as it may sound, this is far from the first modern instance of Republicans calling for a return to 19th-century labor laws. The right has lately been seeking to slash regulations so that businesses from retail, restaurants and assembly lines, to meatpacking plants and agriculture can staff their operations with low-paid, pliable, sometimes undocumented teenagers. Arkansas, under former Trump spokesperson and now-Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has been at the vanguard of this regressive effort, but its effects have spread across the nation.

Tragically, poverty in the U.S. is such that many children, immigrant children chief among them, are themselves incentivized to obtain underage employment out of necessity. A recent spate of fatal accidents involving children on the job is simply an inevitable outcome of two related trends: deteriorating social welfare and unethical corporate practices aimed at maximizing profits. The result is that, in the latest low point of neoliberal excess, we find ourselves confronting an issue that many would assume was resolved by the tail end of the Industrial Revolution.

Questionable Premises

The API report’s proposition that child labor be revived is not only obscene in its own right; like the rest of the document’s right-wing fantasies, it is premised on some very dubious pretenses. The institute says it offers up this suggestion out of a pressing need to solve a “labor shortage.” In truth, the purported “shortage” of labor that the group describes is nothing of the kind; what Alabama, and the nation, are instead in the midst of is a shortage of employers offering fair and reasonable wages.

The report writers point out gravely that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has labeled Alabama as having among the “most severe” shortages nationwide. (It stands to reason that this is how a pro-business lobbying organization would frame a lack of people who are willing to work for unlivable wages.) But if job openings are going unfilled, that should come as little surprise in Alabama, which is one of just five states without a state wage floor. That means its minimum wage defaults to the federal rate: $7.25 an hour.

With the federal wage remaining so pitifully low and decades out of date (according to the Economic Policy Institute, its relative value is at a 66-year nadir), it’s no coincidence that, as the API’s proposal notes, “Many of these job openings are in the retail and food services industries” — i.e. jobs that pay minimum wage or potentially less, in the case of waitstaff.

As Sharon Zhang reported for Truthout in 2021, research from the nonprofit organization One Fair Wage and the University of California, Berkeley Food Labor Research Center found that fast-food workers are driven to quit as a direct response to low pay and poor conditions. Yet, as Zhang described it, “overwhelmingly, a ‘full, stable, livable wage,’ would compel workers to stay at their jobs.” Plenty of other findings have borne this out. But Republicans, naturally, are keen to blame this phantom shortage on social services like unemployment insurance, stimulus checks or the character of the working class (the infamous, and baseless, lament: “No one wants to work anymore!”

It’s not the first time that responsibility for an ostensible “labor shortage” has been laid at the feet of the working class. Economist Robert Reich, writing in The Guardian, put it bluntly:

Economists offered similar warnings of a “labor shortage” after the financial crisis and recession of 2008-09. But when the economy strengthened and wages rose, the so-called “labor shortage” magically disappeared. So, what should be done about the difficulty employers are having finding workers? Simple. If employers want more workers, they should pay them more.

However, since cutting into corporate profits would contradict the right’s entire raison d’être, alternative explanations must be found, and consent must be secured for a response that resonates with the prerogatives of capital, not labor. Accordingly, the API report suggests, “One potential way to help ease the state’s labor shortage, particularly in the retail and service industries, is to make it less cumbersome for minors to work.” The “cumbersome” burdens of government regulation, this phrasing implies, are hampering the innovation and competitiveness that might be unleashed by the restoration of Dickensian child suffering.

Doubly Exploitable Workers

Understood in that light — i.e. the fact that to the extent a “crisis” does exist, it’s because business is unwilling to raise pay above the gutter-level minimum — the API’s casual suggestion to revive the work conditions of the Industrial Revolution makes perfect sense. Children are a lot cheaper and a lot less likely to stand up for their rights on the job.

Reid Maki is the director of child labor advocacy and coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition; comprising 38 member groups, it is the primary organization agitating for change on the issue. Truthout reached Maki for comment on the API’s proposal, and on the broader context of worsening conditions into which this report has landed with an ugly thud.

“The number of child labor violations has increased nearly 300 percent since 2015.”

“We oppose any weakening of protections for teen workers,” said Maki. “Last year, we saw three 16-year-olds die in occupational accidents, two of them industrial. Current restrictions exist to protect teens from hazardous work dangers and from negative educational impacts. We must not balance a perceived labor shortage on the backs of vulnerable teen workers.”

Indeed, there has been a tragically regular drumbeat of stories covering the grisly and unnecessary deaths of young people at dangerous jobs. In 2023, 16-year-old Michael Schuls was caught in a machine at the sawmill where he worked and was killed. Will Hampton, also 16, was killed when he was pinned by a truck at the landfill that employed him.

There are far too many stories like these — and for every death, there are many disastrous injuries. The New York Times, for instance, reported on Marcos Cux, a 14-year-old immigrant boy maimed at a chicken plant. A combination of relaxed regulations, corporate profit-seeking and desperate conditions for immigrants and the poor has catalyzed this grim trend. The Department of Labor cited cases of fatal and nonfatal accidents and reiterated the severity of ongoing violations and risks for young people at work.

As Maki described, startlingly, “The number of child labor violations has increased nearly 300 percent since 2015, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. A dozen or more states have sought to weaken protections in the last two years.”

The API is far from the only source of the nauseating push to reinstate children in dangerous jobs, of course. “We know from reporting in The Washington Post that some of the harmful state bills to weaken protections have emanated from a conservative think tank in Florida called the Foundation for Government Accountability,” Maki pointed out.

“Now,” he added, “here comes the Alabama Policy Institute, another conservative think tank, with more horrible, damaging ideas to allow teens who are only 14 and 15 to work greater hours and to remove the state’s school-issued eligibility-to-work permit requirement.” Important to note, Maki continued, is that, “The purpose of this permit process is to ensure that potential teen workers are in good standing educationally and that the job they might take does not damage their education or their long-term earnings.”

Even when it comes to the illegalized varieties of child employment, the fines are so low as to be inconsequential: Violations are penalized at a mere $15,138 per child.

The eagerness of the API report writers to eliminate that stipulation is telling. “In making these policy recommendations, the Alabama Policy Institute is evincing a complete disregard for the state’s children and their education,” as Maki put it. The API did make a point, however, to evince its concern for the state of family hierarchy: Sending children off to work would assist with “restoring the authority of the parent over their minor child.”

A Regrettable Reappearance

As advocates like Maki are all too aware, the worrisome resurgence in child labor in the U.S. — and the concomitant rise in accidents — is the result of the ruthless logic of capital and its erosion of government regulations, social benefits, and all else that stands in the way of securing profit. The API report exemplifies those logics. In Maki’s apt words, these kinds of “cynical recommendations” full of “half-baked ideas” nakedly “ignore the welfare of children and focus instead on the needs of the business community.”

Yet even the consternation over child labor that has ensued in public discourse — which has, to some extent, been reflected in legislative and regulatory efforts — does not capture the full span of the issue. The grim truth of domestic child employment is that, as previously reported in Truthout, it was never truly abolished. In its fully legal incarnation, it persists widely in agriculture. In many areas of the U.S. South, the minimum age for child farm laborers is 12. Child workers represent an astonishing 17 percent of all U.S. workers in agriculture, legal and otherwise. The work is extremely dangerous: It kills more child workers per capita than any other industry.

Even when it comes to the illegalized varieties of child employment, the fines are so low as to be inconsequential: Violations are penalized at a mere $15,138 per child. Meanwhile, businesses’ incentives — significant savings on labor costs, increased authority and control over workers, a high unlikelihood or outright impossibility of unionization — make the amoral decision the profitable one. Reflecting that fact, the return of child labor has not been a fringe phenomenon: Per The Guardian, companies that transgressed regulations in 2023 included names like “McDonald’s, Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, Sonic, Dunkin’, Dave & Buster’s, Subway, Arby’s, Tropical Smoothie Cafe, Popeyes and Zaxby’s, [as well as] Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms.” That’s only to name a few. In 2023, the Labor Department identified 5,792 child laborers in the U.S. We can only speculate about the true number.

Perhaps the persistence of child labor and exploitation really speaks to normative values in the United States as a whole — in an analogous way to what the API report says about its authors and their fellow Republicans, who appear comfortable advocating for Victorian-era social standards and child suffering in a public forum. Regardless, the resurgence of child labor has shared roots with many other maladies that run to the heart of this country: outgrowths of the reign of profit over people.

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