The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Work Advice: Child labor is very much a modern problem

Headlines about exploitation and endangerment of underage workers are appalling. Incredibly, the response in some quarters is to relax child labor laws.

The Iowa Capitol in Des Moines. Iowa legislators recently approved a bill to roll back some restrictions on child labor. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
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During a recent morning drive to school with my 10-year-old, the topic of kids earning money came up, which led to a discussion of a video my kid had seen about McDonald’s franchises being accused of abusive child labor practices. The restaurants allegedly had children as young as my child working in the kitchen, sometimes till 2 a.m., some unpaid, some during school hours.

I said I’d heard reports of other employers using illegally hired minors to do even more dangerous jobs, such as overnight shifts sanitizing slaughterhouses, as illustrated in a recent “60 Minutes” exposé.

“I thought child labor was over,” my kid said.

I reassured my kid that what those employers did is not allowed under U.S. labor laws and that they had to pay fines.

By then we had arrived at school, so our brief conversation ended. But there’s a larger one still to be had.

Under capitalism, employers with a labor shortage have two options: Offer better pay and benefits, or find a more desperate, more exploitable labor pool available to do the work. And the current domestic pool, it seems, is increasingly made up of children.

A recent Washington Post article by Jacob Bogage and María Luisa Paúl reported that the labor market’s pandemic-fueled depletion has coincided with an increase in the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border in search of better lives. This situation has led to a steep increase since 2018 in reports of minors being illegally employed — often allowed or forced into exploitative, dangerous jobs.

In response to those outrageous reports of exploitation and endangerment of income-earning minors, one solution being proposed is to … um … loosen some laws and let minors do previously prohibited work. Arkansas recently passed a law removing work permit requirements and age verification for teenagers, and bills in other states are being proposed to extend working hours for teenagers during the school year, among other rules.

The Post article quotes a lobbyist for the looser restrictions arguing that today’s child labor laws are a holdover from the “atrocious labor practices” of a bygone century and that “today’s work environments are the safest they’ve ever been.” Yet a brief review of OSHA enforcement releases — detailing workplace fatalities, amputations and other injuries — suggests that modern workplace safety is less than ideal, even for adults. I don’t know how that compares to all of history, but as a mother, I don’t want my 10-year-old or her teen sibling — or any other youths — working past midnight or hosing down head-splitters at slaughterhouses. Especially not at the expense of their education, safety and any semblance of childhood.

All parents worthy of the title — income-earning, at-home, step-, grand-, surrogate — want to protect their kids from abuse and exploitation. We’re quick to intervene when their peers, teachers, coaches and bosses cross the line. But many of the kids who will be most affected by looser labor standards have no one at home to intervene for them. They need witnesses and advocates in their schools and communities to speak up, and government and businesses to team up to enforce and preserve the laws that exist to protect them. Most of all, they need a society that doesn’t impose or support obligations that only the most desperate and vulnerable can be persuaded or compelled to fulfill.

Some good news for Mother’s Day

After my past couple of gloomy Mother’s Day updates on the well-documented “motherhood penalty” for income-earning moms, I’m pleased to announce that some promising seeds planted last winter are starting to bloom.

This summer, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act will take effect. Modeled after the Americans With Disabilities Act, the new law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers and removes a roadblock that had prevented many workers from filing successful pregnancy discrimination claims.

And a provision in the federal “Pump Act,” which expands rights for nursing employees to express breast milk at work, allows workers to claim punitive damages in addition to back wages and other legal remedies.

Of course, these laws are a day late and a dollar short for many, as documented in a recent article in The 19th News by Chabeli Carrazana on the “open secret” of workplace discrimination against pregnant workers and parents, particularly mothers. They’re also a reminder that many employers still have to be legally strong-armed into making earning a livelihood compatible with the personal choices our society claims to revere.

But every inch gained, like height marks penciled next to a doorway, is worth celebrating.