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The Shocking, Sickening Reality of Child Labor in America

Large corporations have made the enforcement of labor protections for frontline, low-wage workers other people’s problem.

Migrant workers at a produce farm
Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images
Migrant workers of unknown age at a produce farm near Fresno, California, in 2006

Child labor is back. The Labor Department’s wage and hour division recorded a 37 percent increase in 2022 in the number of minors employed in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which outlawed most child labor way back in 1938 and imposed strict limits on the rest. The 37 percent increase was over the previous year. Over the previous decade, the number of minors employed in violation of the act was up 140 percent. 

The surge in child labor reverses what had been, for most of the past 20 years, a significant decline in the number of minors employed in violation of the FLSA. Nobody knows exactly why the numbers started to climb in 2015, but probably it was because the labor market was getting tight. The unemployment rate, which had been falling since 2010, dropped in 2015 to 5 percent, which was then considered full employment. Workers were getting hard to find. The unemployment rate has since fallen further to 3.4 percent

The violations began piling up just as Republican state legislators, many of them newly in the majority, went on the attack against child labor restrictions, pressing in various ways to expand the number of work hours and work settings available to teenagers aged 14 to 17. (With exceptions for farm families, child actors, and a few others, child labor under age 14 is illegal.) One Wisconsin bill went so far as to ban the phrase “child labor” from state employment statutes, requiring that the offending term be replaced by “employment of minors.” A bill introduced in Iowa last month would allow 14-year-olds to work in meatpacking plants. If the youngster gets hurt due to his own negligence (whatever that means at 14), the meatpacker will be indemnified against civil liability. 

Only a few of these Dickensian pro-child-labor bills got enacted, but some did. In June, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu signed into law a bill that allows 14-year-old busboys to clear tables where liquor is served and expands from 30 to 35 the number of hours 16- and 17-year-olds may work during the school year. These restrictions had “become too cumbersome,” New Hampshire Deputy Labor Commissioner Rudolph Ogden explained to The New Hampshire Bulletin. Sununu is weighing a presidential bid in 2024. Working campaign slogan: Bring Back Warren’s Blacking Factory. (Just kidding.)

With this political backdrop, it’s little wonder that an investigation published Saturday by Hannah Dreier of The New York Times revealed a “shadow work force” of migrant children “across industries in every state”: 12-year-old roofers in Florida and Tennessee; 13-year-old girls washing hotel sheets in Virginia; a 13-year-old boy in Michigan making auto parts on an overnight shift that ends at 6:30 a.m.; a 12-year-old working for a Hyundai subsidiary in Alabama (this last courtesy of Reuters). The good news is that the Cheetos you’re snacking on or the Fruit of the Loom socks warming your feet may have been manufactured right here in the United States. The bad news is that they may have been made with child labor. It’s no longer just a Third World practice, or a bad memory from How the Other Half Lives.

A recent driver of the surge is that desperately poor migrant children are pouring into the U.S. in record numbers. Border crossings were equally high two decades ago, but not with anywhere near so many children. As the Times notes, the federal government knows these children are here and entrusts them to the Department of Health and Human Services to connect them to sponsoring families. But once they’re assigned to a family, HHS does a poor job keeping track. Drawing on interviews with child welfare caseworkers, Dreier says about two-thirds of these children end up working full-time.

House Republicans will have a field day with this—never mind that many of them likely support, with Sununu, loosening child-labor restrictions at the state level. Certainly HHS must be held accountable for this explosion in illegal child labor. The Biden administration responded Monday to the Times story with appropriate fury, creating an interagency task force and pledging better supervision by HHS, but the Democratic-controlled Senate will have to pitch in too, with a more sober investigation than anything we can expect on the House side.

But there’s another, more obvious culprit hiding in plain sight. Over the past half-century, the economy has quietly reorganized itself to separate large, respectable corporations from low-wage worker bees. David Weil, who was Labor Department wage and hour administrator under President Barack Obama and failed to win Senate confirmation to return to that job under President Joe Biden—a very costly defeat—diagnosed this phenomenon in his indispensable 2013 book The Fissured WorkplaceIt isn’t just, or even mainly, a matter of employees getting replaced by gig workers. Worker misclassification is a serious problem, but evidence of a large increase in full-time gig work just isn’t there. The more common, and more invisible, problem is that through subcontracting and franchising, large corporations have made the enforcement of labor protections for frontline, low-wage workers other people’s problem. 

Subcontractors win contracts with low bids and are left to figure out how to cover costs; the Fortune 500 company that hires them really doesn’t want to hear about it. Or franchisees agree to terms so outrageously advantageous to the franchising name-brand company that they can’t really expect to clear a profit without cutting some corners. Somebody’s got to be the fall guy, and it’s not such a bad fate. The penalties for violating these laws are small—for employing child labor, you pay all of $15,138 per child—and the reputational damage is minimal for a subcontractor or franchisee of whom nobody’s ever heard.

In the Times story, the role of fall guy is assumed largely by Hearthside Food Solutions. What? You’ve never heard of Hearthside? Surely you’ve heard of Frito-Lay, which makes Cheetos, and General Mills, which makes Lucky Charms and Nature Valley granola bars. But Frito-Lay and General Mills couldn’t do it without Hearthside, the country’s largest contract manufacturer. And Hearthside, in turn, relies in Grand Rapids, Michigan—where 15-year-old Carolina Yoc, from Guatemala, works an assembly line stuffing bags of Cheerios into yellow boxes—on a local staffing agency.

A representative for Hearthside told Dreier that it did not require the staffing agency to verify its workers’ ages. (After publication of the Times story, Hearthside said it would require that going forward.) Three former employees at the staffing agency, Forge Industrial Staffing, told Dreier that they shared suspicions about the age of some workers with Hearthside. But “Hearthside doesn’t care,” Nubia Malacara, a former Forge employee (who said she too worked at Hearthside as a minor), told Dreier. For their part, Hearthside and Forge both assured the Times that they obey the law. Attempting to assign blame between these two is a fool’s errand. What matters is that General Mills gets off the hook by reassuring the Times that it recognizes “the seriousness of this situation” and will get to the bottom of it. (Frito-Lay declined comment to the Times.)  

The Biden Labor Department said Monday that it had begun an investigation of Hearthside and that it will explore using the “hot goods” doctrine of interstate commerce to try to assign responsibility higher up the supply chain. But it isn’t clear the Labor Department will have the necessary tools. Determining responsibility for hiring underage workers, like determining responsibility for anything else that affects low-wage workers, is a game of three-card monte. A wholesale reordering of how corporations are regulated, including new legislation, will likely be necessary to assign real accountability for how the workers who make brand-name products get treated. Until that happens, abuses will continue. These now include child labor, a problem everybody thought we’d licked a century ago.