Members Only | March 8, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

We can’t enforce our way out of a child labor crisis

A well-regulated labor market is needed, writes Noah Berlatsky.

Image courtesy of the Times.
Image courtesy of the Times.

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US employers in industries like meat-packing and food-processing have vastly expanded the exploitation of child labor since the pandemic.

The Labor Department says there has been a 70 percent increase in child labor violations since 2018. Many of those have been in dangerous occupations.

The Biden administration has responded by vowing to crack down on enforcement of labor laws. 

The administration has created an interagency task force and is looking to Congress to provide more funds for oversight. 

If we want to keep children out of dangerous jobs, we need to address an exploitative immigration system and the conditions of poverty which push children into the labor force when they have few other options.

It also wants to levy heavier penalties for violations. Currently companies can be fined $15,138 per underage child exploited. That’s “not high enough to be a deterrent” the administration said in a press release.

More resources for enforcement are helpful and necessary. But the exploitation of child laborers, and especially of migrant child laborers, is driven by structural issues. 

We can’t simply enforce our way out of a child labor crisis. 

If we want to keep children out of dangerous jobs, we need to address an exploitative immigration system and the conditions of poverty which push children into the labor force when they have few other options.

Pandemic desperation
As reported in the Times, the current explosion in child labor is driven in large part by pandemic-related economic desperation in Central American nations like Guatemala.

A network of traffickers and exploiters has grown up to take advantage of children moving into the US. Minors enter the country already in debt to middlemen as they try to send remittances back home.

Reuters reported on one Guatemalan 16-year-old in Alabama, “Amelia,” working six-days-a-week eight-hour shifts in a frigid Wayne Farms poultry plant for $10 an hour. Back home wages are typically $5 a day.

Labor rights for all
Human Rights Watch has identified four factors worldwide that are essential to reducing child labor.

One is easy access to free education. This is mostly available in the US. Another is enforcement of labor laws, which the Biden administration is grappling with. 

There are two more issues Human Rights Watch points to, though, that have been little discussed. 

Human Rights Watch says that to fight child labor, we need, “a well-regulated labor market” that “will guarantee adult workers a minimum wage and ensure fundamental labor rights such as the right to organize and bargain collectively.”

The US market for migrant workers is notoriously poorly regulated. 

Unauthorized workers make up almost 5 percent of the US labor force. But, as the Economic Policy Institute explains, these 8 million workers are easily exploited, because they can’t complain to authorities about unpaid wages or substandard conditions. 

If they do, they can be targeted for deportation.

Legal immigrants (including many child workers) face similar challenges. They often (again like children) come to the US in debt. Their visa status is often tied to their employer, who can effectively deport them by firing them. 

When one group of workers is easily exploited, it makes it harder for other workers to organize, eroding standards for everyone. 

That’s exacerbated in many states by anti-union “right to work” laws that undermine union organizing and lead to a decline in wages and workplace conditions.

US working conditions are worse than those in most of its affluent peers. That affects children in two ways.

First, adult workers make less money. When adults can’t make enough to get by, they start to look to children to make up the slack. 

Second, workers – and again, especially immigrant workers – don’t have power to advocate for themselves or protest conditions at the workplace. 

The people most likely to notice and report child labor violations are other workers. 

But when workers are not unionized and worry about being deported themselves, they are not in a position to protest to bosses, or to alert law enforcement. 

Child poverty = child labor
Finally, Human Rights Watch recommends “social protection” to “support the poorest, most vulnerable families.” 

When a family is unable to afford basic necessities, sending a child to work may look like the least-worst option. A strong social safety net, including, Human Rights Watch says, monthly stipends, is a powerful tool in ending child labor.

The US had been experimenting with monthly stipends through the Expanded Child Tax Credit program. It lifted millions of children out of poverty before Republicans and conservative Democrats allowed it to lapse. 

The Child Tax Credit program would need to be retooled to ensure that all migrant children have access to it. But it could take a great deal of pressure off of them and their parents or (increasingly for migrants) non-parental caregivers. 

Coupled with increased enforcement of child labor laws, a Child Tax Credit-like stipend program could substantially change the incentives for families, making it more difficult to work, and much easier to get by without children working.

The anti-immigration stigma
Everyone says they want to end child labor. But fewer want to change the structures that create it. 

The GOP categorically opposes increased worker protections. It wants laws to punish immigrants, not to empower them. It doesn’t want to pay to lift children out of poverty.

The Biden administration has also failed to support migrant children.

The Times reported that the US Department of Health and Human Services had been worried about the optics of too many children in facilities at the border. 

It reduced oversight in an effort to release them more quickly.

Xavier Becerra, secretary of Health and Human Services, said that he wanted released to work like an “assembly line.” That’s hardly a way to ensure safe placements.

Too often in the US, children — and especially poor migrant children — are seen as a burden, rather than as a charge.

If we want to end child labor of migrants, we need to do more than police companies. We need to defend worker rights, immigrant rights, and children’s rights.

If we don’t, exploitation will continue. As long as immigrant children are desperate , corporations will continue to take advantage of that desperation.       

Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.

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