Do children in America ever work in deplorable, dangerous, Dickensian conditions? The short answer is “yes.”
Reid Maki is the director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League and he coordinates the Child Labor Coalition.
Most Americans are unaware that the U.S. still has child labor, but 2022 made it abundantly clear that we do, and stories in the news made it clear that conditions can be downright shocking. Here are 10 child labor stories or developments that indicate child labor in the U.S. is not something in the past. Through the Child Labor Coalition, which the National Consumers League founded in 1989, we bring together 39 groups to work collectively to reduce international and domestic child labor and to protect working teens from occupational dangers. Our top 2022 U.S. developments:
- Minors found working illegally in Brazilian-owned JBS meatpacking facilities in Nebraska and Minnesota. Several children suffered caustic chemical burns, including one 13-year-old. The children worked on the killing floor in cleaning crews, toiling long nights in the graveyard shift and used dangerous pressure-washing hoses while they stood in water mixed with animal parts. Initially, the number of children numbered 31 in Nebraska and Minnesota, but U.S. DOL has suggested the number of illegally employed teens in processing plant cleaning crews may be much larger. The CLC has expressed concerns about teens illegally working in meat processing plants since a large immigration raid in Iowa in 2003 found 50 minors working illegally in the plant.
- Teens found working in an Alabama factory that supplied parts to Hyundai. In July, labor officials found three siblings, aged 12, 14, and 15, working in an Alabama stamping plant that supplied part to the car manufacturer Hyundai. According to reports, a larger number of minors worked in the factory in recent years. The story drew enormous publicity because factory-based child labor in the U.S. has become rare.
- The Wisconsin legislature passed a bill to weaken child labor laws by expanding the hours of teen work, which endangers children’s educational development and presents certain health risks. The CLC amplified the work of labor unions on social media, we also wrote a letter to Gov. Tony Evers, urging him to veto the proposed legislation, which he did in February. According to research, high school age workers who toil more than 20 hours a week get lower grades and have an increased risk of dropping out.
- An estimated 300,000 children still work for wages in agriculture, performing backbreaking labor in searing heat. Currently, federal law allows children who are only 12 to work unlimited hours as long as they are working when school is not in session. Federal legislation which would protect child farmworkers, the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety (CARE), H.R. 7345, would raise the minimum age of farm work from 12 to at least 14 and lift the age of hazardous work from the current 16 to 18—the same as all other sectors. CARE saw some promising developments in 2022, including the holding of a congressional hearing on the bill—the first since 2009. We also secured over 200 organizational endorsements for CARE and we worked with CLC-members Human Rights Watch, Justice for Migrant Women, and First Focus Campaign for Children to obtain 47 CARE legislative cosponsors.
- The Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act, H.R. 3865 –and its companion bill S.2044—would ban child labor on U.S. tobacco farms where children toil long hours and routinely suffer symptoms of nicotine poisoning such as vomiting, fainting, dizziness, headaches and nausea. In a desperate attempt to keep nicotine off their skin, many teen tobacco workers toil while wearing black plastic garbage bags with holes punched out for their arms and head. Some teens work at great heights and great danger in tobacco drying barns. In the U.S., you have to be 21 to buy cigarettes but at age 12, you can work on tobacco farms and suffer poisoning from toxic nicotine. In this congressional session, we helped secure 32 cosponsors for H.R. 3865—more than double the amount of cosponsors in the 116th.
- Enforcement of domestic child labor laws in 2022 through mid-November saw an almost 40 percent increase in the number of child workers involved in a violation of child labor rules—nearly 4,000 children, according to reporting by com, using Department of Labor data. Nearly 20 percent of the violations involved teens performing hazardous work.
- USDOL and state labor agencies frequently found child labor violations among fast food restaurants. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey fined Dunkin’, the donut franchises, $145,000 for over 1,200 child labor violations in 14 stores. U.S. DOL found violations in 13 Pittsburgh area McDonalds restaurants in which teens worked too many hours or too late, as well as a case of a teen doing prohibited hazardous work
- In September, Human Rights Watch, a CLC member, issued a child rights report card for all U.S. states related to child marriage, child labor, juvenile justice, and corporal punishment, and how well they meet the standards set by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Alarmingly, only four states earned passing grades: 20 received an “F”; 26 received a “D”; four received a “C” and none received a “B” or and “A.”
- In July, Massachusetts became the seventh US state to ban entirely child marriage. Like child marriage globally, U.S. child marriage has substantial health, educational, and financial impacts on teens who marry. Most states have broad exemptions that allow teens to marry with the approval of parents or the courts. Massachusetts joins six other states that passed legislation to end child marriage: New York, Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Minnesota. The CLC is a member of the National Coalition to End Child Marriage, headed by the NGO Unchained at Last.
- The CLC and HRW held a series of meetings with Wage and Hour in 2022 to secure the reopening of the occupational child safety rules for agriculture called “Hazardous Occupation Orders.” These rules have not been updated for agriculture in roughly four decades despite many lessons-learned about farm injuries during that time. We also helped Rep. Roybal-Allard and Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) draft a letter to DOL Secretary Walsh urging enhanced safety precautions. The letter had 47 congressional signatories.