This month, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) reached an agreement with Monogram Meat Snacks whereby the company ‘will be fined $30,276 in civil money penalties for employing “at least two 16- and 17-year-old children” at its plant in Chandler, Minnesota.’ This incident is one small example of an appalling growth in child labour throughout the U.S. that has come to light in recent months.
A report issued in March of this year by the Economic Policy Institute found that states ‘across the country are attempting to weaken child labor protections, just as violations of these standards are rising.’ The report identifies ‘bills weakening child labor standards in 10 states that have been introduced or passed in the past two years alone.’
The situation is worsening rapidly and the ‘number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws increased 37% in the last year.’ The growth of legal violations of child labour laws and state-level efforts to weaken these protections reflect ‘a coordinated campaign backed by industry groups intent on eventually diluting federal standards that cover the whole country.’
The report sets out some of the more egregious abuses that have been exposed in the recent period. In February, the DOL released some of the findings they had uncovered in an investigation of Packers Sanitation Services, Inc (PSSI). These showed the illegal employment of ‘over 100 children between the ages of 13 and 17 in hazardous occupations at 13 meatpacking facilities owned by JBS, Cargill, Tyson, and others.’
The investigation showed that 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.’ A parallel investigation by the Department of Homeland Security is considering how many of the children were ‘unaccompanied migrant children … connected to illegal employment by traffickers who profited from their labor.’
‘Multiple factories in Hyundai-Kia’s supply chain in Alabama are also under DOL investigation for employing children as young as 14.’ A considerable portion of these children were found to be ‘from Guatemalan migrant families’ and it is clear that an organised system to provide child workers is in operation. ‘Like meatpacking plants across the Midwest, many of the Alabama [auto] plants relied on staffing firms to recruit low-wage assembly line workers.’
The report is very clear that this is not a question of ‘isolated mistakes of ill-informed individual employers’ and it shows that the abuses are occurring in workplaces that are owned by major companies. ‘PSSI, one of the country’s largest food sanitation services companies, is owned by the Blackstone Group, the world’s largest private equity firm.’ Moreover, ‘DOL investigators found PSSI’s use of child labor to be “systemic” across eight states, ‘clearly [indicating] a corporate-wide failure.’
Central to this explosion in the exploitation of children is the fact that ‘unaccompanied migrant youth left in limbo by a broken U.S. immigration system have become particularly vulnerable to exploitation by employers and networks of labor brokers and staffing agencies who recruit workers on their behalf. Nearly 130,000 unaccompanied migrant children arrived at the U.S. border in 2022 alone, many fleeing poverty and violence.’
The supply of migrant child labour is being driven by extreme economic hardship. ‘Both youth and adults awaiting asylum claims processing are ineligible for work permits for many months and cannot access social safety net programs … leaving them impoverished and desperate to accept work of any kind to pay for necessities like food and rent, as well as repay debts to sponsors or help support family members in their countries of origin.’
The Biden administration has established ‘a new interagency task force on the exploitation of child labor’ and has ‘appealed to Congress to increase employer penalties for child labor law violations.’ However, such measures won’t contain the profit-driven appetite for child labour, the desperation of those driven into it, or the readiness of state governments to set children to work.
A bill was introduced in the Iowa Legislature in January to expand the categories of work that could be performed by fourteen and fifteen-year-olds and extend hours of work for them. It even included a provision that would ‘exempt employers from liability if these young workers are sickened, injured or killed on the job.’
Such measures in a range of states have been ‘strongly backed by the National Federation of Independent Business.’ The intention of such employer groups is to create in other sections of the workforce a situation that already exists in U.S. agriculture, where between 300,000 and 500,000 minors are already at work, ‘with 48% of all young workers’ fatalities between 2001 to 2015 occurring in the agriculture industry.’
Return to the past
In 2017, Monthly Labor Review ran an article on the history of child labour in the U.S. It pointed out that there ‘was a time in this country when young children routinely worked legally. As industry grew in the period following the Civil War, children, often as young as 10 years old but sometimes much younger, labored. They worked not only in industrial settings but also in retail stores, on the streets, on farms, and in home-based industries.’
Child labour was, of course, a major part of the intense exploitation that marked the industrial revolution. Putting children to work provided an extremely low-paid and relatively powerless portion of the workforce. It also served as a means of replacing or driving down the wages of adult workers.
In his Condition of the Working Class in England, Friedrich Engels dealt extensively with these questions, as they played out in Manchester during the 1840s. In one factory he investigated, adult cotton spinners had actually been forced to accept child wages in order to retain employment (p.107).
The proliferation of child labour in the U.S. coincides with a broader attack on workers’ rights and the intensification of levels of exploitation. Already, ‘Americans have it worse than all other developed nations when it comes to benefits for workers.’ In particular, the ‘U.S. places last relative to its national policies around healthcare, unemployment, retirement, parental leave, and paid vacation and sick days.’
Despite inspiring and enormously important efforts by workers to organise and resist, trade unions remain relatively weak in the U.S. and the rate of unionisation is very low. In 2022, only 10.1% of U.S. workers were in unions and, in the private sector, the rate stood at a mere 6%. Long decades of attacks by employers and the state, combined with weak and collaborationist union leaderships have left a deep mark.
Last month, Governor Greg Abbott signed into law a bill that the Texas state legislature had passed. This overturned municipal legislation under which ‘construction workers in Austin and Dallas [could] take water breaks every four hours and rest in the shade for ten minutes.’ As this measure was taken, ‘Texas and other parts of the U.S. South suffered severe hot weather with temperatures up to 40 degrees Celsius.’ It was also reported that ‘there were 42 heat-related deaths in Texas in the construction sector from 2011 to 2022.’
Such an extreme and reckless effort to maximise the exploitation of workers only highlights the dangers that are contained in the spread of child labour in the U.S. In 2023, conditions that were challenged and pushed back a century ago are returning and taking hold. No faith can be placed in Biden’s timid efforts to limit the problem and a fight to defeat the social evil of child labour is utterly essential.