A grim truth underlies U.S. industry: the appalling practice of child labor, widely perceived as an anachronism, is far from a thing of the sooty industrial past. U.S. consumers may have a hazy sense that children labor somewhere in foreign sweatshops to manufacture their goods — but such faraway tragedies are too easily forgotten at the checkout.
But child labor persists domestically as well. Because the practice has long been obscured from view, recent exposures of its real scope have elicited public surprise. In the past year, journalistic and governmental investigations of Southern manufacturers turned up systematic violations, while in February, The New York Times published a powerful exposé that highlighted migrant children who’d been steered into grueling work in manufacturing and agriculture. Still, these were mere glimpses. In the last fiscal year alone, the Department of Labor discovered 835 companies illegally employing more than 3,800 minors.
Those figures are startling enough — but the actual extent of legal U.S. child labor is truly vast. At present, enormous numbers of minors, many of them migrant children, are legally employed on U.S. farms, thanks to an underage-labor exemption unique to agriculture. With little regulation or oversight, for many, conditions there can be just as hazardous as in illegal employment — and estimates of the full count of U.S. child farm laborers run into the hundreds of thousands.
After the Times report was published, the Biden administration responded swiftly with plans for heightened investigations and oversight by the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services. While not unwelcome, such comparatively small and reactive interventions will do little to ameliorate a deeply entrenched structural problem. On one side of this equation lies families’ desperate poverty and inequality, worsened by inhumane immigration policies; on the other, the corporate drive to profit at any cost. To make matters worse, Republican lawmakers in multiple states are making concerted efforts to repeal child labor protections — serving, as they reliably do, the interests of business at the expense of the people. One would be hard-pressed to find a more contemptible indictment of the profit incentive under our current regime than the widespread immiseration of our society’s youngest and most vulnerable.
By the end of the 1990s, activist campaigns had proven wildly successful in publicly exposing the foreign child sweatshop labor in use by some of the world’s largest corporations, Nike being the most notorious example. (After years of denying the allegations, Nike finally issued a mea culpa. At Nike and other garment companies, the public pressure was sufficient to spur highly publicized changes of suppliers and new oversight policies. Nike’s newfound moral courage and integrity lasted precisely as long as they believed people were paying attention, after which they promptly returned to using sweatshops — along with the rest of the industry.)
Major brands have largely survived the turmoil in part because they are, first and foremost, adept at PR, but have also taken pains to keep any unpleasantness within their supply chain at a distance, establishing plausible deniability and shielding themselves behind nested layers of contractors with poor oversight. But the exploitation of minors cannot be relegated purely to far-flung locales — and in any case, it is just as morally repugnant in Indonesia as in Indianapolis.
Still, it’s a testament to the U.S.’s alienation from its supply chains that the term “child labor” is more likely to evoke Dickensian chimney sweeps and diminutive miners than anything contemporary. In truth, the tragedy is that — much like 13th Amendment’s prison labor caveat, which still enables practices tantamount to legalized slavery — while its character changed, child labor was never fully abolished in the U.S. Furthermore, especially on farms, a considerable segment of child employment is outright legal. Elsewhere, its illegal practice remains widespread, in part because the penalties are so miniscule that they’re more akin to rounding errors on corporate balance sheets than any real financial deterrent.
An early rekindling of public outrage came when multibillion-dollar cleaning contractor Packers Sanitation Services was found to have employed more than a hundred children across its operations in eight states. A Department of Labor (DoL) investigation led to fines totaling over $1.5 million. On its face, that may sound like a heavy sanction — however, it works out to a mere $15,138 per child. As Professor Richard D. Wolff pointed out, the entire $1.5 million amounts to 0.05 percent of the company’s 2021 sales. Remarkably, these abysmally low fines are not the result of some decades-old statute. According to the DoL, it was only on January 16 of this year that the maximum civil monetary penalty was raised to the $15,138 limit. (If a first-time violator company causes a child’s on the-job death or serious injury? They’ll pay a maximum of $68,801.) For powerful corporations, the current fines can hardly be called a slap on the wrist — they are barely an admonishment, to say nothing of a real penalty.
Multiple unrelated violations were soon unearthed: Last summer, Reuters reported that child laborers as young as 12 were found at SMART Alabama, a subsidiary of automakers Hyundai and Kia. Shortly afterwards, as also reported by Reuters, the Department of Labor investigated and assessed fines against SL Alabama LLC, another supplier to those same automotive giants, for employing two children in its supply chain. And so on: Child workers were discovered at Hyundai subsidiaries Hwashin America Corp and Ajin Industrial Co., and Reuters’s sources indicate that perhaps as many as 10 auto parts plants linked to Hyundai and Kia are under investigation.
Although, per a DoL press release, SL Alabama was required by the court to implement additional training measures and terminate any employee “found responsible for child labor violations,” the only further consequences for the company were utterly negligible: fines totaling $30,076.
The Agricultural Exception
Why might corporate industrial interests wish to employ pre-teens? Truthout spoke with Reid Maki, the coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition and the director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League, for insight into the realities of child labor in the U.S.
As Maki explained, “Children often work more cheaply than adults and are not likely to organize or complain about working conditions.” He also pointed out that lately companies are keen to hire new workers, especially for bottom-tier jobs. Since the onset of the pandemic, managers and bosses nationwide have been quick to complain that “no one wants to work anymore.” It would be much more accurate to say that people are unwilling to take punishing jobs for the absolute pittances on offer. Accordingly, to fill those positions, some employers have been willingly complicit in hiring underage workers.
“We hear companies talking about labor shortages,” said Maki, “[but] we think employers should try to attract workers by raising wages, not hiring children, especially if the work is not appropriate or hazardous for kids.”
The fact that child labor laws exist at all is only due to decades of worker struggle. It’s impossible to estimate the extent of exploitation that has been avoided as a result of hard-won U.S. child labor protections. Yet loopholes remain — with the most glaring ones to be found in the categorical exemptions for agricultural industries, where far more hiring leeway is granted than in non-farming workforces.
As Maki pointed out, agricultural exemptions “permit child farmworkers to work unlimited hours, as long as they are not missing school.” Children as young as 12 (in reality, many are far younger) can legally work 12-hour shifts during spring and summer breaks, while 16-year-olds can toil in hazardous conditions; in other sectors, the minimum age for hazard exposure is 18. “Exacerbating the issue,” Maki added, “the U.S. DoL has not updated definitions of hazardous work in agriculture for four decades.”
The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, a migrant labor advocacy group, estimates that there are around 500,000 children working legally in U.S. agriculture; they make up an invaluable part — fully 17 percent — of the 2.9 million agricultural workers in the trillion-dollar industry. Underage workers are exposed to pesticides and associated cancer and organ damage risks, to which children are especially vulnerable. The dangers are omnipresent: heat exhaustion, permanent injuries and fatal accidents alike. A 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office found that the agricultural sector accounts for half of all child worker deaths — and the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found that 33 child worker injuries occur on U.S. farmlands each and every day.
Into the Arms of Exploiters
In part, the increased incidence of child labor in both factories and farms over the last few years is a product of shifting immigration patterns. Considerable numbers of the nation’s underage workers are migrants, often fleeing Central American countries that have been wracked by internal and international economic exploitation, violence and yawning inequality. In many cases, these social maladies have arisen in the aftermath of decades of terror at the hands of murderous regimes and paramilitary groups, which often perpetrated horrors with full U.S. support.
Driven to escape social conditions that have been worsened by the pandemic, unaccompanied minor children have begun to cross the border in record numbers, reaching a high of 130,000 in 2022. As many as two-thirds of them may end up as child workers in some of the nation’s most unenviable jobs, chiefly, once again, in agriculture. Often they will find themselves alongside other undocumented workers, who constitute nearly 50 percent of the U.S. agricultural workforce.
José Velasquez Castellano was only 8 when he worked his first day in the fields. By the time he was 13, he was regularly toiling alongside his mother on a tobacco farm. Castellano was not unaccompanied when he entered the country, unlike much of the recent influx, but he has been through comparable trials, and he has great empathy for those now enduring the same.
“My mom immigrated to the U.S. when she was 17,” Castellano told Truthout. “So she herself started working in agriculture when she was a teenager. She immigrated from Guatemala, then went to Mexico, and from Mexico ended up in North Carolina.”
To help pay the bills, he worked alongside her until he was 18, mostly during each spring and summer break — his mother stressed the importance of education, and he remained in school. He took the job willingly; the family simply needed the money, but the work was no less grueling for it.
“The weather was horrible,” he recalled. “The conditions, the pay, everything. … You spend days in those fields, over 100 degrees, dehydrated, on your feet.”
When working in the tobacco fields, Castellano described, the nicotine “will seep into your skin.” He worries about potential long-term effects, from the tobacco as well as from pesticides and other chemicals. “I don’t know what effects those had on me, but I know it shouldn’t have happened. But you’re in this position where you can’t really speak out against things that are wrong, because you could lose your only form of income.”
Castellano’s story is, sadly, a common one. In a revelatory article for The New York Times, investigative reporter Hannah Dreier collected accounts from over 100 child laborers in 20 states, offering the public a rare and stirring glimpse of the suffering that accompanies migrant child employment.
Dreier’s investigation turned up “products made with child labor in the American supply chains of major brands and retailers, including Ben & Jerry’s, Fruit of the Loom, Ford, General Motors, J. Crew, Walmart, Whole Foods and Target.” She also cited employee sources at Hearthside, a manufacturer of brands that are owned by General Mills and PepsiCo, who claimed that managers at Hearthside facilities in Grand Rapids, Michigan, were fully aware that some of their new employees were underage and using false identities. Hearthside has been cited for 34 OSHA violations since 2019; 11 workers have suffered amputations in that time. Yet, when child workers are injured, most go unreported. And remarkably, Dreier pointed out, “the Labor Department tracks the deaths of foreign-born child workers but no longer makes them public.”
Child workers who work while attending school often go without studying, or without sleep. Fourteen-hour shifts, exhaustion and chronic pain — the 10- to 14-year-olds that the Times interviewed described struggles far beyond their age. As Dreier wrote, “In many parts of the country, middle and high school teachers in English-language learner programs say it is now common for nearly all their students to rush off to long shifts after their classes end.”
When unaccompanied migrant children arrive at the border, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is responsible for connecting them with any “sponsors,” relatives or strangers, that have signed up to support them. But children are often rushed through the shelter system and released to adults — meaning that vetting processes can be hasty at best. It is not uncommon that, after children are sent into the country, the federal government immediately loses track of them. The Times found that “over the last two years, the agency could not reach more than 85,000 children.”
Unethical and exploitative sponsors then might shunt the children into servile labor, claim they must work to pay off a debt, or manipulate them into even worse situations. Some children, promised they’ll be in school, “find that they have been misled by their sponsors and will not be enrolled.”
Castellano encountered similar figures in his work: middlemen who provided cheap labor to agricultural enterprises, trading on immigrants’ desperation. “We weren’t working directly with the owners of the farm,” he explained. “What we had were contractors — people that talk to the owners and supply them this human capital. … Sometimes the bosses don’t even know that this is happening, but the contractors themselves are more than aware.”
“In my case, the contractor would mostly hire children, because he knew that we were the ones looking for work, and we were young and desperate enough to take anything we could get.”
Castellano described one instance in which his informal logbook was “lost,” and the contractor pocketed his wages. He and his mother yearned to escape these circumstances, but their immigration statuses kept them consigned to punishing work in the fields. “I dreamed of working at McDonald’s, because I knew that was better than what I was doing at the moment. But with my status, my work authorization, I just could not.”
“This was only two years ago,” he shared. “I feel like it definitely has had an impact mentally. Like it’s taken a toll on me. … My mother, she suffers from pain that was probably provoked from bending all day long in tobacco fields. It takes a toll on your health.”
The Federal Response
Dreier’s damning New York Times article proved to be something of an inflection point for the issue. Only a few days after it was published, the Biden administration announced a “crackdown” on illegal migrant child labor. Initiatives will reportedly include new and more comprehensive investigations, tracing the supply chain to explore potential complicity beyond tail-end subsidiaries and contractors, up to the managing corporations. Efforts will expand upon ongoing DoL investigations, which, officials say, currently number around 600.
The administration, reports Bloomberg, is also “asking Congress to increase funding for the enforcement effort, and pass legislation to increase civil monetary penalty amounts for child labor violations.” Top Democrats have also condemned the failed oversight in the sponsor system; some are proposing legislation to raise fines and issue criminal penalties against companies that employ the underage.
A joint DoL-DHHS task force will reportedly conduct investigations and review internal processes to offer better protections for migrant children as they wend their way through labyrinthine shelter systems. The DHHS will also “help migrant children register for school” and also now “require staff to follow up with children who… report safety concerns,” the Associated Press noted. (A less charitable reading could take this to imply that child-reported safety concerns were previously ignored.)
DHHS Secretary Xavier Becerra has faced criticism stemming from his alleged role in the failures of the federal shelter and sponsor system. He was captured on video urging staff to move children through shelters and into the hands of sponsors like “an assembly line” — quite the unfortunate choice of words, given how unscrupulous sponsors have shuttled children into factory labor. The current system presents too many vulnerable children with an array of awful options: detention, crowded shelters, or release to sponsors that can harbor ulterior motives.
These efforts are, of course, not unwelcome, and may indeed offer protection to the vulnerable. Yet the administration’s announcements may do more to provide rhetorical cover than to mend human suffering at any meaningful scale. Structural injustice is so deeply inscribed: paltry wages, exploitative corporations and contractors, nationwide inequality, racial hatred and the viciously retributive border policies rolled out by all administrations, Biden among them. As the full scope of interlocking factors comes into view, the promised changes start to seem like little more than window dressing.
The Republican Party is eagerly moving to worsen matters. In a craven move, the GOP has been clamoring to permit more child labor, with fewer protections. Meanwhile, right-wing propagandists are attempting to spin the news into a Biden scandal, a result of the country’s purportedly “open borders.” Republican lawmakers in multiple states have leapt to attend to the every need and whim of business, and plan to address the “labor shortage” by moving us closer to Victorian-era employment standards. These leaders have showed little hesitation at the chance to boldly regress toward the longtime libertarian fantasy — one shared by the likes of the Koch brothers, among other laissez-faire zealots — of total business deregulation, consequences and children be damned.
A flurry of pro-child-labor legislation has issued forth. “By our count [at the Child Labor Coalition],” said Maki, “seven states are looking at loosening child labor laws currently.” Minnesota Republicans proposed allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to work on construction sites, while in New Jersey, teen working hours have been extended; a similar law is pending in Ohio.
Legislation in Iowa would encourage especially retrograde conditions: if it passes, 14-year-olds would be permitted to work in industrial freezers, meatpacking plants, industrial laundries and assembly lines, and for much longer hours. In these circumstances, said Maki, “children have a significantly increased risk of injury or death.”
One provision of the Iowa bill “would permit businesses that conduct on-the-job training programs to seek state waivers allowing 14-17 year-olds to work in jobs related to manufacturing, mining, construction and processing,” The Gazette reported. And, “with permission, 16-year-olds could work as bartenders.”
As Maki said, more than a little aghast: “The Iowa bill would also exempt employers from worker’s comp liability if a child worker is hurt. How cynical is that? Supporters of the bill should be ashamed.”
Most recently, Arkansas Gov. and former Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the Youth Hiring Act of 2023, removing the need for a DoL permission and work certificate for under-16 children to get a job. Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families wrote in a statement: “It was wild to listen to adults argue in favor of eliminating a one-page form that helps the Department of Labor ensure young workers aren’t being exploited.” Huckabee Sanders posed with glee as she held the signed legislation among some terrified-looking children.
With the U.S.’s high rates of child poverty and hunger compared to other capitalist nations in the Global North, there will be many children in now-deregulated states who will be sent back to work — not to gain some character-building experience, but out of necessity, helping themselves and their families survive. For capital and the right, so much the better; the most unpleasant jobs can be filled at minimal cost, and a few more slivers of profit will be extracted at poor children’s expense.
Crimes and Misdemeanors
As Republican lawmakers endeavor to make young people’s lives more punishing while allowing business to skirt the consequences, it seems that federal investigations may at least identify some of the worst illegal abuses. Yet when a company is found to be exploiting child labor, what kind of response is warranted? What measures would constitute accountability, or justice? Even if fines are raised far beyond the insultingly low $15,138 — at what point do they become an effective deterrent?
As is often remarked: if the punishment for a violation is a fine, then for the rich, it may as well be legal. Poor people and/or people of color have served decades in prison for shoplifting. It’s more than a little galling that companies face merely a tiny fine — and their executives, no consequence at all — for something as abhorrent as knowingly exploiting children. Adam Johnson, host of the podcast, “Citations Needed,” pointed out these contradictions in his newsletter. It’s not that carceral responses are the answer here — it’s that there is a glaring disjuncture in how “crimes” are treated, which is determined by an entity’s relationship to capital.
The Biden administration’s proposals certainly gave the appearance of a prompt and meaningful intervention plan. But if fines remain the only sanction, the same disparities will persist. As Castellano put it, “Child labor is not going to end with more attention toward it.” Only major policy action can meaningfully address it at the root, he said: “Whether it’s increasing the minimum wage, so that parents don’t have to rely on their children to support them. Whether it’s fixing the broken immigration system, placing kids in these predatory relationships with people they may not even know.”
Ultimately, the most effective antidote would be to alleviate sprawling inequality, transform inhumane border policies and mitigate the grotesqueries that appear downstream of the unrestrained pursuit of profit. Structural drivers lie on both sides of the equation: on one end, the inhumane immigration policy and impoverishment that drives children to work; on the other, the incentives of corporations to utilize their labor and cover up exploitation. If these forces are not mitigated, no fine nor fee will discourage the contemptible abuses found throughout the underbelly of capitalist production.
Yet there are still many chances to better children’s lives. José Velasquez Castellano’s story is, ultimately, a happy one. Now 20, he’s a student at Tufts University and has volunteered and worked alongside activist organizations, including the Child Labor Coalition, hoping to spare other children the same trials. “There were a lot of systems, and a lot of things against me,” he said. “But I persevered. All we have when we’re in that position is hope and perseverance.”
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