The disorienting fact about the 21st century is that, even as the calendar moves forward, actual social and political reality is in a state of regression. Evils that were once thought long-vanquished are returning with a vengeance. Instead of Francis Fukuyama’s promised “end of history” leading to an expanding global system of liberal democracy, we’re living through a revival of authoritarianism and Great Power imperial conflict. Thanks to anti-vaxxers, the United States and other countries are experiencing a return of measles, mumps, whooping cough and chicken pox. The health achievements of the past century are threatened by a malfunctioning global health system that is becoming more vulnerable to pandemics. The rollback of social democracy that began with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher has led to levels of income inequality surpassing the era of robber barons like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie more than a century ago.
Child labor now has to be added to this list of resurgent horrors. “Migrant children, who have been coming into the United States without their parents in record numbers, are ending up in some of the most punishing jobs in the country,” writes journalist Hannah Dreier, in an in-depth investigation published by The New York Times last month.
This shadow work force extends across industries in every state, flouting child labor laws that have been in place for nearly a century. Twelve-year-old roofers in Florida and Tennessee. Underage slaughterhouse workers in Delaware, Mississippi and North Carolina. Children sawing planks of wood on overnight shifts in South Dakota.
Dreier’s report follows Carolina Yoc, a 15-year-old migrant from Guatemala who works in a food processing plant in Grand Rapids, Mich. Like many, Carolina fled her home out of desperate poverty, which has been exacerbated since the Covid pandemic.
Carolina’s journey from rural poverty to factory exploitation was made possible by bipartisan policy decisions going back many decades. Against the background of repeated failed attempts at immigration reform, many American companies have become reliant on the cheap labor that migrants provide whether they have legal status or not.
The normal pattern of immigration is for parents to go abroad and send money back to their families. But the United States government, since passage of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act in 2008, has created a perverse incentive structure that makes it easier for children to gain entry than for adults. The Trump administration exacerbated this problem with its child separation policy. The Biden administration was unwilling to change the reality of child separation, but didn’t want the bad optics of children in cages. Under Biden, therefore, the Department of Health and Human Services settled for a policy of rapidly and carelessly releasing child migrants to sponsors. This easy-release policy coupled with the current labor shortage (itself partly intensified by the Trump era tightening of immigration) created both the supply and the market for child workers.
Technically, there have been federal laws on the books to prevent child labor since 1938. But the decline of labor unions combined with the neoliberal evisceration of the regulatory capacity of the government means these laws often go unenforced.
As a result, the United States is now witnessing scenes reminiscent of the works of Victorian and Gilded Age chroniclers of social degradation such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Jacob Riis, Stephen Crane, and Upton Sinclair. As Dreier records, “Underage workers in Grand Rapids said that spicy dust from immense batches of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos made their lungs sting, and that moving heavy pallets of cereal all night made their backs ache. They worried about their hands getting caught in conveyor belts, which federal law classifies as so hazardous that no child Carolina’s age is permitted to work with them.”
When she’s not risking her health to make sure bags of Cheetos get to their destination, Carolina Yoc attends a high school where, Dreier notes, one of her teachers lectures on “the journalist Jacob Riis and the Progressive Era movement that helped create federal child labor laws.” Carolina and her fellow students, many of them also workers on the night shift, are too tired to notice the irony.
The scandalous return of child labor implicates not just the political system but also a wide swath of corporate America. Among the firms named in the New York Times account as relying on child labor, usually with the plausible deniability provided by a contractor, are Ford, General Motors, J. Crew, Ben & Jerry’s, Walmart, Target, Whole Foods, and Fruit of the Loom.
As Eric Levitz cogently notes in New York magazine, one simple policy response would be to loosen immigration rules so adults from Central America could enter and in effect take the jobs now done by their children:
If the U.S. expands immigration opportunities for international workers, our labor shortage and Central Americans’ economic woes should ease simultaneously. After all, there is no “skills” mismatch between economically desperate Central Americans and open U.S. positions. The U.S.’s labor shortage is concentrated in fields that do not require an extensive education. The U.S. needs more kitchen staff, construction workers, and delivery drivers. Central America is home to a large number of people with the interest in and capacity to perform those roles. Opportunities for “win-win” policy-making are rarely so clear-cut.
The ACLU has offered a comprehensive program to solve the child labor problem that includes creating a path for citizenship, family reunification, and greater availability of legal counsel for child workers.
Unfortunately, given the GOP’s propensity for xenophobic demagoguery on immigration—and the Democratic Party’s cowardice on this issue—such commonsense solutions aren’t in the cards.
The Biden administration does at least seem properly embarrassed by the New York Times report. The White House is promising a crackdown on child labor through enforcement of existing laws. Senate Democrats, led by Richard Durbin, are pressing for new laws to punish employers of child labor and more carefully vet the sponsors who are given charge of migrant children.
But the labor shortage remains a reality—and there is a countervailing push to make it easier for children to work. On Wednesday, CNN reported that “Arkansas Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a bill into law this week that rolls back a number of child labor protections across the state, including a measure that had required employers to obtain work certificates for children under the age of 16.” Sanders is following in the footsteps of other states. As The Washington Post reported on February 11,
Legislators in Iowa and Minnesota introduced bills in January to loosen child labor law regulations around age and workplace safety protections in some of the country’s most dangerous workplaces. Minnesota’s bill would permit 16- and 17-year-olds to work construction jobs. The Iowa measure would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work certain jobs in meatpacking plants.
The fundamental reality is that American corporations are desperate for immigrant labor, but the political system is unwilling to give many of those immigrants (particularly if they are poor and from Central America) legal status. The tension between the economic need and the political desire has produced a ramshackle system where child labor flourishes. The previous era of child labor came to an end only through a combination of muckraking journalism, political campaigning, and labor organizing. That remains the only remedy.