Child labour violations on the rise in America

 The child labour violations surged to 37% in 2022 as six states loosen the child labour laws to exploit the children

According to American Department of Labour (DOL), the number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws in fiscal year 2022 increased 37% over 2021 and 283% over 2015. The number of minors employed in violation of hazardous occupation orders increased 26% over Financial Year 2021 and 94% over Financial Year 2015.

Remarkably, this year, legislators in 6 states have proposed 8 bills that make it easier to exploit kids for profit. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds has signed the infamous bill to expand child labor in the state. The legislation allows kids as young as 14 to work six-hour shifts on school nights, and to work dangerous jobs in demolition, on assembly lines, operating power saws, and more.

At a time when serious child labor violations are on the rise in hazardous meatpacking and manufacturing jobs, several state legislatures are weakening or threatening to weaken child labour protections. The trend reflects a coordinated multi-industry push to expand employer access to low-wage labour and weaken state child labor laws in ways that contradict federal protections, in pursuit of longer-term industry-backed goals to rewrite federal child labor laws and other worker protections for the whole country. Children of families in poverty, and especially Black, brown, and immigrant youth, stand to suffer the most harm from such changes.

Both violations of child labor laws and proposals to roll back child labor protections are on the rise across the country. The number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws increased 37% in the last year and at least 10 states introduced or passed laws rolling back child labor protections in the past two years.

The Chicago Workers Collaborative, which is a workers’ rights group, found workers as young as 13 years old working through third-party staffing agencies at a factory for Hearthside Food Solutions factory in Bolingbrook, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. Hearthside Food Solutions is an Illinois-based contract manufacturer and private bakery that makes and packages products for several name-brand cereal and snack brands. In early March protesters gathered outside a warehouse of Hearthside Food Solutions to call attention to the problem.

A young child working nights in hazardous conditions to feed their family is a type of story some expect to hear from so-called underdeveloped, poverty-stricken countries. But in the United States, child labour is on a steady increase as more cases are being exposed and investigated. Hundreds of American companies are illegally employing children, according to the U.S. Department of Labour. In many of these cases, the minors are unaccompanied migrants who have crossed the southern border of the U.S.

In February 2023 the U.S. Department of Labour (DOL) issued new findings on an ongoing investigation of Packers Sanitation Services, Inc. (PSSI) for illegally employing over 100 children between the ages of 13 and 17 in hazardous occupations at 13 meatpacking facilities owned by JBS, Cargill, Tyson, and others (DOL 2023). These children worked illegally on overnight shifts cleaning razor-sharp saws and other high-risk equipment on slaughterhouse kill floors. At least three of them suffered injuries, including burns from caustic cleaning chemicals.

Multiple factories in Hyundai-Kia’s supply chain in Alabama are also under DOL investigation for employing children as young as 14. Many of these children are from Guatemalan migrant families. Like meatpacking plants across the Midwest, many of the Alabama [auto] plants relied on staffing firms to recruit low-wage assembly line workers.

Violations uncovered in recent federal enforcement actions are not isolated mistakes of ill-informed individual employers. PSSI, one of the country’s largest food sanitation services companies, is owned by the Blackstone Group, the world’s largest private equity firm (PESP 2022). DOL investigators found PSSI’s use of child labor to be “systemic” across eight states, “clearly indicating a corporate-wide failure.

Most violations occur in places where it's appropriate for minors to work, meaning teenagers are working too many hours at a grocery store or operating a fryer and staying too late at a fast food chain. For example, in 2022, more than 100 kids across several MacDonald’s in Pennsylvania were illegally scheduled to work too many hours or too late at night. Subway, Burger King and Popeyes restaurants in South Carolina were fined for similar violations in 2022.

The U.S. generally has good child labor laws, except for agriculture, says Reid Maki, director of child labor advocacy for the National Consumers League and coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, which works to end abusive child labor. Minors as young as 12 can work long hours, and agriculture's hazardous-occupation orders are not as strict as in nonagricultural industries .

                                                                        Khalid Bhatti 

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