Labor law expert Terri Gerstein has one word to describe the current trends in child labor: “bizarre.”
Recent investigations by The New York Times, the Boston Globe and Reuters revealed cases where kids as young as 12 were working in meatpacking plants, fish processing plants, construction and car factories. Coupled with this surge in child labor law violations, Gerstein said, is a movement by certain state legislatures to remove existing protections. In Arkansas, for example, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a bill that rolls back age verification requirements for children under 16. Iowa and Minnesota are also considering bills that loosen child labor age restrictions and workplace safety requirements.
“It’s bizarre they’re happening at the same time because when we see an uptick in child labor, logically, that should be when we actually strengthen our laws and try to think about what we can do to protect children,” Gerstein, a fellow at the Center for Labor and a Just Economy at Harvard Law School and the Economic Policy Institute, said on Boston Public Radio.
“Our child laws basically prevent kids from doing dangerous work and also from working such long hours that it's harmful to their physical development and their ability to go to school,” she said. “When I talk about this upsurge in child labor violations, it includes both types.”
There’s a variety of factors contributing to this troubling national trend. There has been an increase in unaccompanied minors entering the United States, who are often the children at the center of these labor law violations. Combine that with a workforce shortage due to the COVID-19 pandemic and some adult workers declining to hold jobs with low wages and poor benefits. Companies have turned to the growing pool of migrant children to fill their place, Gerstein said.
Many recognizable brands have been cited in these violations, like Cheerios, Walmart, Target and General Motors. These companies have mostly been able to avoid punishment, however, by placing the blame on staffing and temp agencies, subcontractors and franchises who directly hired the children. Gerstein said there needs to be a “chain of liability” in the supply chains of companies that have child labor so that if a subcontractor violates workers' rights, the general contractor is still held accountable.
The government has sometimes failed to enforce these laws because federal workplace agencies “have been starved of funds for years and years,” Gerstein said. Additionally, the number of U.S. Department of Labor Wage & Hour Division investigators declined by a quarter between 2010-2019, while the number of workers per investigator more than doubled since 1979. While federal enforcement is stretched thin, many states don’t even have state-level investigators, Gerstein added.
Some lawmakers are taking action. A bipartisan bill introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives in March will increase penalties for companies found guilty of child labor law violations.
While harshening penalties is important, Gerstein cautioned that companies may still not be deterred from putting children in unsafe conditions if they don’t think they’ll get caught.
“Any improvements in these laws I think is really valuable and important,” said Gerstein. But to really make change, Gerstein said this bill needs to be combined with other measures, like stronger unions for children and work permits for unaccompanied minors that will allow them to secure more appropriate jobs in law-abiding, safer workplaces.