Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Less oversight means more risk to child workers

Worthington, Minnesota, population 13,947, described by a former resident as “a small, rural town in Southwestern Minnesota,” has more unaccompanied migrant children per capita than anywhere else in the country. Also in Worthington: a long-standing open secret that some of these migrant children are illegally employed to clean a slaughterhouse run by JBS, the world's largest meat processor.

In Green Forest, Arkansas, population 2,972, a cleaning company that works with meatpacking plants was fined over $90,000 for unlawfully employing six minors who were forced to work 16-hour shifts with no breaks. You can read more about Green Forest, AR, here and here.

While the number of children working in dangerous jobs is rising and media coverage of the phenomenon has raised public outrage, the recent trend among some states is to roll back child labor protections. 

Just two weeks after authorities found minors working illegally at the meatpacking plant, the Arkansas legislature passed the Youth Hiring Acteliminating work permit requirements for children under the age of 16. Before the Youth Hiring Act was passed in March 2023, child workers under 16 years old had to get a work permit from the Arkansas Division of Labor.  Some fear that by eliminating this requirement children will be subject to less safe working conditions because the state will have no records of where underage children are employed.
Iowa also rolled back child labor protections in the spring of 2023. As of April 2023, children in Iowa as young as 14 can now work night shifts, and 15-year-olds can work on assembly lines.
Accompanying Arkansas and Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio and Georgia have all introduced bills or laws this year to allow teens to work more, and with less government oversight.
Who is advocating for this weakening of child labor protections? Most of the bills on this issue that were introduced in Iowa, Arkansas, and Missouri were designed by the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA). Funded by ultra-conservative and Republican donors, the FGA “frames its child worker bills as part of a larger debate surrounding parental rights, including education and childcare.” 
But important and shocking facts provide a counternarrative that is grounded in parental rights: Children under 18 are twice as likely to be seriously injured at work than those over 18. In the dairy industry, injuries among all workers are double the national industry average, yet children as young as 14 regularly use dangerous equipment in that sector.
Most at risk for unsafe, unregulated working conditions are undocumented minors who come to the United States without a guardian. In 2022, 130,000 unaccompanied minors entered the United States, triple the number entering just five years ago. Undocumented children don’t necessarily understand the laws in the United States or even the language, which puts them at greater risk for labor trafficking.
While child workers are employed in all 50 states, from Maine to Hawaii,  undocumented children are likely more at risk in rural areas given the industries associated with it and the challenge of enforcing laws there. You can read about the challenges surrounding law enforcement in rural places here.
In addition to the obstacles regarding law enforcement, agriculture is the primary industry in many rural areas, and agriculture is a context in which child labor is commonly exploited. This is partly because federal laws are more relaxed when it comes to agricultural labor regulations.

In 1938, the standards for children performing farm work were more lenient because farming was considered a family-oriented task.  Farm consolidation, which peaked between 1950 and 1997,  shifted the size and number of farms in America substantially. From 1987 to 2012, the number of farms with more than 2,000 acres nearly doubled while farms with over 200 acres but less than 1,000 acres fell by 44%

Despite the shift away from family-oriented farms towards large industrial ones, the labor laws covering agricultural workers have remained largely stagnant. As a result, underage farm workers today are often paid significantly less than the minimum wage and are subject to harsh working conditions such as pesticide exposure, long working hours with no overtime, and no bathroom access or available drinking water. In fact, of all the jobs that children do, only about 7% are in the agricultural field yet agricultural jobs make up 40% of youth work-related fatalities.

Of course, child labor violations are not limited to rural places or the agricultural sector.  Tens of thousands of children are working illegally in hotels, delivery services, restaurants, and more. This is happening in all 50 states and in places stretching from rural Virginia to New York City.

As consumers of Nature Valley granola bars, Lucky Charms, Ford cars, Tyson chicken nuggets, and Ben & Jerry's ice cream (all of which, along with many more companies, have used child labor in their factories per the New York Times) we all have a responsibility to demand tighter labor laws for children in this country. Moreover, addressing this problem should not be limited to rural or urban places. Instead, this is a topic that should be tackled by coalition building along the rural-urban divide. 


Natalie M. said...

Great post, Caitlin. This post reminds me of the documentary we watched in class about the immigration raid on the meat processing facility in the Midwest (Iowa I think if I remember correctly). I think your post highlights how sometimes rural areas and people are hesitant to abide by governmental regulations, such as child labor laws. I think child labor protections are important but I can see why sometimes people are hesitant to enact governmental regulations in rural spaces.

Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Here is some related coverage from the New YOrk Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/28/us/migrant-child-labor-audits.html



Lisa R. Pruitt said...

And here is still more related coverage: