In February, The New York Times published a front-page report from Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Hannah Dreier that shed light on a shocking reality: migrant children are being illegally exploited in staggering numbers, working brutal jobs in kitchens and factories, hotels and slaughterhouses across the United States.
And despite identifying as “the party that protects children,” Republicans haven’t exactly jumped to end this heinous practice. In fact, in states like Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, and Arkansas, they’re leading efforts to roll back child labor protections—in the name of filling jobs. According to the chief author of the Minnesota bill, state Senator Rich Draheim: “Eliminating work opportunities for youth just because of their age will make it even harder for businesses to find reliable employees.”
But of course, children don’t need “opportunities” to wash dishes, change bed sheets, or operate heavy machinery. The United States has historically prided itself on the successful eradication of child labor; are we going to allow those standards to be loosened now, just because it would satisfy the almighty profit motive?
Dreier’s report exposes “a new economy of exploitation.” Children have fled economic despair in their home countries, and arrived in one all too willing to turn that desperation into profit. Our dysfunctional immigration system makes it easier for kids to come here than for their parents, and the Trump administration’s family separation policy made it even worse.
Take Carolina Yoc, one of the children Dreier profiled. By day, she is a typical ninth-grade student. But by night, she works at a food plant in Grand Rapids, Mich., where she packs plastic bags full of Cheerios into box after box after box. These 17-hour days are taking a toll on Carolina. Most days, she wakes up tired and sick. She can’t afford to skip work, so she skips school instead.
Carolina is one of thousands of migrant children who work full-time in the United States. And they’re not just working for local businesses that will hand them cash under the table. These kids “bake dinner rolls sold at Walmart and Target, process milk used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and help debone chicken sold at Whole Foods.” These are brands we all know. We might have food in our pantries that was packaged by Carolina, or another child just like her.
Dreier’s report reflects the shameful reality of child labor as it stands today. But across the country, Republicans are pushing for standards to fall even further.
Arkansas’ new governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, signed a bill that will make it easier to hire children under the age of 16, without having to get a pesky “work certificate” that would verify their ages, require written consent from their parents or guardians, and protect them from exploitation.
Republicans in Iowa are trying to do the same, with a bill that would put young teens to work in meat freezers and on assembly lines. As if that weren’t bad enough, the bill also protects employers from being held liable if their underage manual laborers are hurt or killed on the job.
Testifying in support of a bill to let kids work later on school nights, Tod Bowen of the Ohio Restaurant Association said, “The skills that young people learn by being part of the workforce are invaluable…. So much of a young person’s time in today’s world is spent in front of a screen.”
Bowen is using a 21st-century example to repackage 18th-century rhetoric. In 1790, a London industrialist claimed that child labor would prevent “habitual idleness and degeneracy.” In other words: These poor kids are having too much fun. Let’s put them to work. As Jeet Heer writes, America today recalls the works of Charles Dickens and other Victorian “chroniclers of social degradation.”
In the wake of Dreier’s report, the Biden administration has taken action, creating a joint task force and calling on Congress to increase fines for child labor law violations. But there is so much more to be done. It is absurd that we even have to write this, but we should be strengthening child labor laws, not rolling them back.
Child farmworkers are exempt from parts of the Fair Labor Standards Act, allowing them to work unlimited hours at age 12 and perform hazardous work at age 16. The Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety, or the CARE Act, would remove these exemptions. Such regulation is long overdue; the bill has been introduced in some form over a dozen times since 1998.
Meanwhile, in agriculture-reliant Nebraska, there’s a push for a constitutional amendment that would give Congress the power to regulate labor for kids under 18. It’s unlikely this measure would be ratified by 38 states, but standing up for child labor laws is a winning fight for Democrats. Forcing a debate on this issue would create an opportunity for voters to ask why Republicans have become the pro–child labor party.
The refusal to allow child labor has historically separated the United States from more exploitative economies around the world. But now that distinction cannot be taken for granted.
“I didn’t have expectations about what life would be like here [in the United States],” Carolina said recently, “but it’s not what I imagined.”