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Good Luck, Kid. The Underestimation of the American Child Labor Crisis.

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

By: Eli Moyse

Image Credit: AI-Generated Photo

The disturbingly prescient plague of child labor has, once more, swallowed the morals of our country whole.

The number of child labor violations found in the United States is at the highest it's been in a decade, and these official reports are just the tip of the iceberg. The United States Department of Labor has faced a tsunami of new child labor cases, at rates not seen in generations. Over the past decade, the number of recorded violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the primary law that regulates how minors work, has increased by 140%. Last year alone, the number climbed 37%. Violations have been found everywhere, with recorded incidents including kids of all ages, all across the country: 13-year-olds working factory overnight shifts and cleaning sheets at hotels, many skipping school or sleeping less to work. The children exploited are almost always the most vulnerable among us: low-income, oftentimes migrant youth attempting to help their families survive. Part of the Department of Labor’s responsibility as a department is investigation and enforcement–a recent investigation by the department found that 62 Mcdonald's franchises across 4 states were illegally employing 305 children, including 2 unpaid 10-year-olds, who worked at the restaurants as late as 2 AM. Many of these children were working in the kitchen–around grills, ovens, and even operating deep fryers. The penalty for these franchises’ employment of 305 minors? A total of $212,000 in fines spread among the three franchisees, and nothing else for the larger company or individual restaurants found in violation.

According to their statistics, the Department found 688 minors employed illegally in hazardous positions across the entire country in 2022, and 3,876 violations total in the same year. This single investigation found 305, so that begs the question–how many could the department be missing every year?

Larger investigations by independent news organizations have suggested that the number of children who fall through the cracks may be alarmingly high. One investigation in particular by the New York Times exposed massive and wide-ranging exploitation of migrant workers. In only one school that they visited, administrators and teachers estimated that at least 200 students were working full-time jobs on top of going to school. This investigation was so wide-reaching and found so many violations that seem to raise alarming questions about how much of the problem regulators are really missing–according to numbers found in news investigations, the underground market of Child Labor in the U.S. is significantly larger than what official statistics suggest.

Another investigation by Reuters exposed the expansive underbelly of illegal child labor that was connected to tens of factories and production plants in Alabama, which produce everything from car parts to chicken for companies as big as Hyundai and Kia. Investigators interviewed migrant children who worked at these plants and reported working with scores of other minors also employed at the plants. A recent influx of unaccompanied minors entering the United States has coincided with an especially competitive job market, and these simultaneous increases have created an opportunity for staffing agencies. Hiring and staffing firms see a major financial upside for filling jobs that have remained vacant

due to high demand for workers. These firms promise to fill positions for large companies and are willing to feed pretty much anyone who will work into the jobs they are hired to fill, whether it’s legal or not.

It wouldn’t make sense to point out the magnitude of the child labor problem without attempting to at least partially explore the causes. It is clear there is an opportunity to employ minors, but what about the motive? For rates of child labor to increase, there logically has to be both motivation on the part of children or their legal guardians to force them into work, and the ability to find firms or companies willing to employ minors. Both of these exist in spades in this country and are only more common for at-risk populations. For migrant children, the pressure on the U.S Government to get as many juveniles out of federal detention and into foster care homes has created major holes in the foster system and has allowed some foster parents to illegally take advantage of the system in order to maximize their own profit off the foster care system. Other migrant children simply feel pressure to make money to support the households of relatives they are placed with. Other stories are mysteries: over the last two years, the Department of Health and Human Services has been unable to get in contact with some 85,000 placed minors. What has happened to many of them is a deeply disturbing open question.

For nonmigrant children, the motivation is almost always monetary–an incalculable number get jobs to support their struggling families or close the gap in their own expenses for school and other basic necessities.

The other side of the coin is corporations who hire these children. Many large companies have transferred from directly hiring employees to outsourcing this task to the aforementioned staffing agencies, in an effort to cut costs and minimize the paperwork or administrative work they need to do to hire new employees. This places the staffing agency directly in charge of hiring employees locally, which allows for children to slip through the cracks. Large companies often lack a due diligence process when hiring these agencies, and don’t investigate whether the agency is following all necessary labor laws: if the price is right, they take the staff.

The solution to the child labor crisis is relatively straightforward: more regulatory oversight on hiring practices, staffing agencies, and child labor, and better social services for migrant children. Yet, many of our policymakers are pushing regulations in direct opposition to these goals.

Bills introduced in Minnesota and Iowa lessen regulations across the board, including provisions that allow teenagers to work factory jobs, and adjustments that lessen businesses’ civil liabilities if children are injured or even killed on the job. A new Arkansas law eliminates the need for 16-year-olds to obtain paperwork that both confirms their age and includes signed consent to work from a parent. A New Hampshire law expanded the maximum hours 16 and 17-year-olds can work during the school year.

On Migration, lawmakers are steadfast in focusing on punitive measures that prevent immigrants from coming instead of addressing the reality of the immigration crisis currently unfolding among immigrants already within the United States. President Biden recently unveiled a plan to make it harder to claim asylum for immigrants, and Republican lawmakers’ rhetoric on immigration has remained focused on expanding the border patrol and funding a border wall. None of these proposals address the crisis immigrants are facing once they have entered the United States, including the lack of a safety net to protect the basic human rights of children.

Although there is always potential for new solutions, an increase in funding for important governmental organizations like the Department of Health and Human Services seems unlikely after limits to discretionary funding have been announced as part of the debt ceiling deal. For now, the government’s response to migrant children unable to access assistance and protections? Work harder, and don’t bother us.

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