Home > Uncategorized > The Dickensian return of child labor – posted 5/14/2023

The Dickensian return of child labor – posted 5/14/2023

Up until recently, child labor was not a subject you would see discussed in any media. There has been a perception that child labor was a thing of the past. It was outlawed roughly 100 years ago. It was something Charles Dickens wrote about in 1850 in David Copperfield.

Dickens was traumatized when at age 12 he was forced to work 10 to 12 hour days in a boot-blacking factory. He was in charge of gluing labels onto bottles of shoe polish. The conditions were harsh and dirty. Dickens’ father had been incarcerated in debtors’ prison, causing family separation and economic crisis.

Like many children of his era, Dickens was deprived of the opportunity of a full formal education. He was put under tremendous pressure to support himself and his family. Dickens often wrote very sympathetically about destitute boys who were robbed of their childhoods.

In America, I know there was a long struggle in the early twentieth century to legislate and limit child labor. Around 1900, one in six children was engaged in gainful employment. Progressive era reformers challenged poor working conditions, long hours and the exploitation of young children.

After a struggle that lasted almost three decades, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. That law, in part, prohibited some oppressive laboring conditions, including much child labor.

So it is extremely surprising to see child labor re-emerge as a contentious issue. The New York Times has been covering this story. Their reporter, Hannah Dreier, spoke to over 100 children in 20 states. She found 12 year old roofers working in Florida and Texas, underage slaughterhouse workers in Delaware, Mississippi and North Carolina and children sawing planks of wood on overnight shifts in South Dakota. Many of these children were working 12 hour days and they were not attending school.

The Department of Labor says that since 2018 there has been a 69% increase in the illegal employment of children.

The Guardian reported on over 100 children ages 13 to 17 working in thirteen meat-packing plants in eight states. The kids were hired to sanitize the meat plants, work with hazardous chemicals and clean meat-processing equipment including back saws, brisket saws and head splitters. Investigators found a 13 year old who was burned with caustic chemicals while working on the 11pm-7am shift for Packers Sanitation Services in Nebraska. The Department of Labor slapped a $1.5 million fine on the cleaning company..

Two 10-year-olds were found working at McDonald’s in Louisville, Kentucky, where they prepared and served meals, worked the drive-thru and cleaned. They would occasionally work as late as 2am. The Department of Labor found 305 minors under the age of 16 who were working illegally at McDonald’s restaurants in Kentucky, Indiana, Maryland and Ohio.

Many of the children are unaccompanied migrants who came to the U.S. from Central America without their parents. They are not unknown to the federal government, though. The Department of Health and Human Services is supposed to monitor them and is responsible for ensuring sponsors will support them. It is also responsible that they be protected from trafficking and exploitation.

The children are often under intense pressure to earn money. Commonly, they are in debt paying smuggling fees or needing to pay for rent or other living expenses. They know their families back in Central America are relying on them to send income back home.

The Times quoted Rick Angstman, a ninth grade social studies teacher in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who saw two students pass out in class from fatigue. It is not unusual for students to be rushing off immediately after class ends to work long shifts. Angstman said one student dropped out of school. He said:

“She disappeared into oblivion. It’s the new child labor. You’re taking children from another country and putting them in almost indentured servitude.”

You might think that in 2023 labor exploitation of children would be seen as a shocking aberration but for business lobbyists and Republican legislators that is not the case. They are now trying to roll back federal and state regulations that have been in place for generations.

Bills are moving through ten state legislatures that would expand work hours for children, lift restrictions on hazardous occupations and lower state minimum wages for minors. In Wisconsin, Republicans introduced legislation to allow children as young as 14 to serve alcohol in restaurants, down from the current age of 18.

Arkansas is a leader in the child law de-regulation effort. Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a bill removing employer requirements to verify the age of children as young as 14 before hiring them. States are trying to pass laws that fly in the face of federal regulations.

Business lobbyists like the National Federation of Independent Business want to allow younger kids more work hours and they want kids to be able to work in previously prohibited settings with less oversight. It amounts to business looking for cheap labor in tight labor markets. It is one strategy for combating having to pay adult workers too high wages.

Between 2010-2019, the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor lost 12% of its staff including investigators. At a time when violations of child labor are increasing, the Department of Labor has had less resources to investigate violations. Also the maximum fine it can impose on companies is $15138 per child. That is so low that it is almost inconsequential.

Companies may consider such fines simply a cost of doing business. There is a need for more enforcement and higher penalties. When conservatives talk about deconstructing the administrative state, we should be clear that one example of what they want is no interference with their child labor schemes.

It is ironic that the Republican Party, obsessed with QAnon fantasies about pedophilia and the sexual exploitation of children, is very much engaged in real-life labor exploitation of children. They care about children so much that they want to return to the good old days of the nineteenth century.

In the 1930’s it was the photos of Lewis Hine and the writings of Jacob Riis which helped to wake up the nation’s conscience about child labor. I think we need a 21st century Hine and Riis. Young children of whatever background belong in school and deserve a childhood. I am reminded of a quote from Charles Dickens:

“Have a heart that never hardens and a temper that never tires and a touch that never hurts.”

If he were alive today, Dickens would be appalled.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. bebo6004
    May 14, 2023 at 3:26 pm

    The Rs are not for kids – just for money, and social repression/regression. Let th

  2. jlewandohotmailcom
    May 14, 2023 at 11:58 pm

    It’s hard to think of many causes of human rights abuses that haven’t come down to cheap labor. Religious zealotry would be another, I guess.

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