Public Comment

The Return of Child Labor

Harry Brill
Friday April 14, 2017 - 08:06:00 AM

When Alexander Hamilton was Secretary of Treasury he noted in a report on manufacturing that children "who would otherwise be idle could become a source of cheap labor". His advice was highly regarded by the business community. Child labor, as young as age 6, was widespread until the late 1930s. Almost 20% of children worked, often in unhealthy environments and performing dangerous jobs. Children between the ages of 6 to 16 years labored as many as 12 to 14 hours each day. In the southern textile industry during the early 20th century 20,000 of the 50,000 employed children were under the age of 12. 

As a result of the efforts of progressive reform organizations and labor unions, some states adopted restrictions on child labor. The major advance was made by the Federal Labor Standard Act in 1938, which includes minimum wage and maximum hour provisions, and also makes it illegal to hire anyone under age 18 to perform work that is considered hazardous by the Department of labor. As a result of the growing strength of organized labor, unions were able to exert some pressure on business and government to protect workplace safety and health standards. 

But since union clout has been declining, these protections have been taking a beating. The mission of the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) is to assure that employers provide a safe work environment for working people, both young and old. Yet although the labor force has grown considerably since 1980, OSHA now has fewer health and safety inspectors. Due to budget reductions OSHA's federal inspectors have been cut since 1980 from 1,469 federal inspectors to about 850.  

The worse may be still ahead. The Department of Labor, which is the only federal agency with inspectors who are responsible to protect young workers from abuse, is confronted now with a recommended budget reduction of over 20%. 

At the state level, many legislators across the country have been attempting to roll back child labor laws. In Missouri, even though its labor department is short of staff, the state has reduced the number of labor investigators. In the year prior to reducing the staff, the Department reported 467 child labor violations. The following year only 191 violations. 

In Maine, a youth wage of $6.50 was enacted. Previously there was no separate youth wage. This change resulted in a cut in their hourly earnings. Also, employers can now require young employees to work late evening hours. Generally speaking, keep in mind that changes in safety laws for all employees can be particularly problematic for young workers. Michigan, for example, banned safety regulations for work that covers repetitive motion. 

Enacting child labor laws favored by employers are mainly the result of the Republican Party's electoral victories. There are now 33 Republican governors and 32 Republican Legislatures. And there are also a few Democrats who are unsympathetic to labor. Add to the political menu President Donald Trump and a conservative Supreme Court, you can be fairly sure that working youth will not be coddled. 

The grim domestic developments are nevertheless only one piece of the problem. The United States is the world's largest importer. According to the Department of Labor many imported products are made by child labor. The Department of Labor issued a report which identifies about 350 products from countries around the world that are made with child or forced labor. President Obama, responding to the concerns of organized labor, signed a bill last year that bars the import of many of these products. However, with rare exception the law has not been enforced.  

Among the imported products that involve child labor are clothes, cocoa, coffee, bricks, cotton, sugar cane, and gold. Some of the countries that supply the United States with gold mined and refined by children are South Africa, Kenya, India, Bolivia and Brazil.  

Also, an estimated 200 children in Bangladesh, some age 11 and even younger, are sewing clothes that are sold in Wal-Mart, J.C. Penny, and many other retail outlets in the United States. The work shift is 12 to 14 hours a day, often seven days a week. In Thailand, an Associated Press investigation found child and slave labor pealing shrimp which is then exported to American supermarkets including Whole Foods, Safeway, and Kroger. Although Thailand had been on a State Department blacklist, the country was never sanctioned. 

Exports to the United States of products made by child labor are encouraged by this country's membership in the intergovernmental World Trade Organization (WT0), which was established in 1995. The WTO is the only global organization that deals with the rules of trade between nations. Over 160 countries are members, which covers more than 90% of world trade. As labor and community groups have experienced, WTO is a corporate managed organization that subverts the decision making process of democratically elected domestic bodies. Tribunals of the WTO make decisions, which bind all member countries. Incredibly, the WTO has an unwritten rule to exclude discussions on child labor and labor issues generally. 

Young workers, however, are often outspoken, active, and militant. The historical records shows that the wit and actions of young people have resulted in many important victories. Who would have predicted that the highly exploited fast food workers, which include many youngsters, would almost double their wage in many cities to $15 an hour? The $15 an hour demand has become a political movement that has caught the attention of workers in other industries as well. Also, 14 cities, counties, and states so far have passed a $15 an hour wage law. 

Aside from the economics, these young workers have enjoyed the links to each other and to workers elsewhere who they have been reaching out to. They see their struggle as an ethical as well as an economic issue. Indeed, their political involvement has been personally transformative. Gandhi understood the process: "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others". This principle works at any age.