Anti-Immigrant MAGA Republicans Want To Bring Back Child Labor Exploitation

The Progressive Era was a response to the exploitation of children in the industrial work force. Child Labor in the Progressive Era:

Child labor during the Progressive Era was an outgrowth of the exploitative practices of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution (1820-1870) was a period of rapid development of new technologies and production methods. Industrialization revolutionized manufacturing, and levels of productivity and output soared. Nationwide, new factories opened their doors, seeking workers to operate their production lines. Thousands of people flocked to America’s cities in the hopes of finding a factory job.

Child labor continued beyond the Industrial Revolution through the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. This period, known as the Progressive Era (1890-1920s), was marked by the public outcry against the darker sides of industrialization, such as poverty, political corruption, and child labor. The child labor Progressive Era link is strong, as it marked the beginning of outspoken public support for child labor reform.

Despite this growing opposition, children continued to make up a considerable percentage of the American workforce in the Progressive Era. In 1900, 20% of American workers were younger than 16 years old, totaling over 1.7 million child workers. Children worked in meat packing plants, textile mills, and cigarette factories. Others were chimney sweeps and newsies, girls and boys who sold newspapers on city corners.

Why were children put to work? Children were an ideal option for employers who wanted to pay their workers less. Capitalist business owners sought to increase their riches exponentially while continuing to pay their workers meager wages. In addition, children were small enough to squeeze between machines or go inside of machines that needed cleaning. Poor families relied on their children’s labor to help support the family.

Indeed, a majority of child workers were from poor families. Moreover, the new influx of immigrants during the 1800s provided a new batch of workers trying to make ends meet. Immigrant child workers included Irish children whose families had escaped the Irish Potato Famine (1840s) and children of southern and eastern European families (1880s). Orphaned children were also especially vulnerable to exploitation.

During this period, there was almost no regulation of child labor and workplace safety. Some children began working as young as age six in factories and mines. Children frequently worked six days a week, up to 18 hours per day. Children’s working conditions were often highly dangerous and unsanitary. Children had few breaks and might be beaten by their supervisor for talking, sitting, or making a mistake. Workplace accidents were commonplace; hundreds of children were injured, maimed, or killed while working in factories. Children who worked were usually unable to get an education, missing the opportunity to work towards a better future. This perpetuated the cycle of poverty.

Opposition to Child Labor

More and more Americans became troubled at the thought of children working. The Romantic era, an artistic and intellectual movement of the early 1800s, had contributed to a widespread understanding of childhood as a sacred time of innocence. Childhood was meant for growing, playing, and learning. This romantic image of childhood stood in sharp contrast to the insidious reality of child labor. References to this romanticized childhood formed the basis of many of the moral appeals made by children’s advocates during the Progressive Era.

Progressive Era social activists were known as Reformists. These Reformists were usually middle-class city dwellers who thought that big businesses were exploiting vulnerable children for cheap labor. Labor unions, photographers, workers, and other citizens also mobilized to protest child exploitation.

Labor Unions

Labor unions were some of the first opponents to child labor. Unions sometimes took a moral stance, arguing that children were too innocent and vulnerable to work. Other times, labor unions focused on the economic consequences of child labor. Employers could pay children much lower wages than adult men, meaning that companies often passed over capable adults in favor for child workers. This economic argument was amplified during the Great Depression, when millions of unemployed adult men were desperate to find any job whatsoever. Union leaders often faced considerable backlash by employers, who sent thugs to intimidate and beat them into backing down from their demands.

Photo Evidence of Child Labor Conditions

Photography also played an important role in influencing public opinion on child laborers and the working class more broadly. Journalist and photographer Lewis Hine was hired by the National Child Labor Committee in 1908 to photograph child workers. Hine traveled nationwide documenting the dismal situation of children working in mines, mills, canneries, and other exploitative positions. He eventually went on tour to raise awareness about child labor, with his photographs as the centerpiece of his appeal. His work is to have had considerable impact in helping bring about the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938).

Jacob Riis used his work as a photographer and journalist to draw attention to the terrible conditions in the New York slums populated by the working class. His book, ‘How the Other Half Lives‘ (1890), was so impactful that Theodore Roosevelt sent a personal response to the writer. Riis’s work played a significant role in bringing about housing reforms across the United States.

Hine and Riis pioneered the use of photojournalism to influence social change. Their work also paved the way for the muckraking journalism of the early 1900s.

See, Sad photos of child miners helped abolish the child labor in the U.S.

A century later, the U.S. has a labor shortage largely due to our hysterical anti-immigrant policies. America’s labor shortage is actually an immigrant shortage:

U.S. employers say it’s a hard time to find and keep talent. Workers are decamping at near-record rates, while millions of open jobs go unfilled. One reason for this labor crunch that has largely flown beneath the radar: Immigration to the U.S. is plummeting, a shift with potentially enormous long-term implications for the job market.

Brookings Institute, Who are the 1 million missing workers that could solve America’s labor shortages?

Our argument is simple; the U.S. workforce is aging and cannot meet the economy’s capacity. Yet, for nearly 20 years, U.S. authorities have deported over 1 million immigrants originally from Central America’s Northern Triangle to their home countries through Mexico. But these potential workers are essential to the U.S. right now: Historically immigrants have been young and have joined the workforce in occupations that very few Americans are able or willing to fill today.

[L]et’s first look at the current American reality. According to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were over 11.2 million job openings (May 2022). In the construction industry, there were an estimated 434,000 job openings (May 2022), yet there were just 389,000 unemployedin that same industry (June 2022). In other words, there is a shortage of almost 50,000 workers. In retail trade, the gap is even wider. With 1.14 million job openings and 720,000 unemployed, there is a labor supply deficit of 420,000 people. If that’s still not surprising enough: The number of unemployed people in the accommodation and food services industry is 565,000, while the number of job openings totaled 1.4 million. Even if every worker in that industry were employed, there would still be 835,000 job openings.

From a broader perspective, in just 12 years, adults 65 and older will outnumber children under 18 for the first time in the history of the United States. And shortly after, by 2040, projections suggest the country will have 2.1 workers per Social Security beneficiary. According to these calculations, the system needs at least 2.8 workers per Social Security beneficiary to maintain its economic feasibility.

[If] the United States wants to grow and compete in the global economy, immigration—including that from the Northern Triangle—is part of the solution, not part of the problem.

But anti-immigrant “America First” MAGA Fascist Republicans say “hell no!” to reforming our immigration laws. They need to maintain our broken immigration system in order to continue to demonize immigrants to fire up their White Christian Nationalist MAGA base and turn them out at election time (and continue to grift off of them).

So now Republicans are once gain turning to exploiting child labor in the work force, rather than to allow for immigrant labor. Child labor protections are the latest Republican target:

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders approved a bill on Tuesday eliminating a requirement for children under 16 to obtain state documentation in order to work. The new Arkansas law is just one of a number of state bills loosening child labor restrictions, despite evidence that young children are already engaged in dangerous and exploitative labor throughout the country.

State GOP legislators have used the rhetoric of protecting children and giving parents more choice over their children’s lives to justify extreme policies such as Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s drag show ban and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s ban on any instruction about gender identity or sexual orientation in elementary schools. Sanders’s spokesperson, Alexa Henning, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “The Governor believes protecting kids is most important, but doing so with arbitrary burdens on parents to get permission from the government for their child to get a job is burdensome and obsolete.”

The new law, called the Youth Hiring Act, will eliminate the requirement that children aged 14 and 15 seeking a job acquire a document issued by the director of the Division of Labor, which includes the child’s work schedule and a description of their work duties, as well as proof of age and parent or guardian consent.

Sanders signed the bill just weeks after the Department of Labor released the results of an investigation that found 102 children aged 13 to 17 illegally working dangerous jobs like cleaning meat processing equipment. Ten of those children were working at facilities in Arkansas, according to the investigation, and 25 were working in Minnesota, another state considering looser child labor laws.

Just as occurred at the turn of the last century:

Many children working in dangerous and illegal jobs are migrants from Central America trying to earn money to send home to their families who are struggling due to the economic downturn precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, a recent New York Times investigation found.

Removing the Arkansas documentation requirement “just seems to create a state of lawlessness,” Reid Maki, director of advocacy at the Child Labor Coalition, told the Washington Post. That’s on top of a labor and immigration system that has failed to protect migrant children from dangerous and exhausting jobs that impact their mental and physical health as well as their ability to attend school.

Henning, Sanders’s spokesperson, stated that the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which prohibits children under 18 from doing certain dangerous work — such as manufacturing or construction — still applies to labor practices in Arkansas. The FLSA was enacted in 1938 and limits the hours children can work so they have plenty of time to go to school, do homework, and get enough sleep to stay awake in class.

Relying on the federal system to protect children from exploitative work is a dubious proposition, though the government has pledged to do more to crack down on child labor. The federal system has failed the most vulnerable children, leaving them exposed to dangerous labor practices and exploitation. In Hannah Dreier’s New York Times investigation, children reported working overnight shifts in hazardous conditions which affected their health and prevented them from getting enough rest to attend school. Many children dropped out of school so they could continue supporting their families back home.

The penalties for breaking child labor laws are minimal, especially for large corporations. Packers Sanitation Services Inc., the subject of the Department of Labor investigation which employed 102 children to clean meat-processing tools like “back saws, brisket saws and head splitters,” was ordered to pay a fine of $1.5 million — just over $15,000 for each illegally employed child, which is the maximum penalty allowed by law.

The new Arkansas bill presumes that “businesses [will comply with federal law] just as they are required to do now,” as Henning said in a statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Though the federal government has vowed to crack down on child labor violations, the Labor Department doesn’t currently have the capacity to investigate and punish all reported violations, the Washington Post reports, making states the practical enforcers of labor laws.

Arkansas state Senator Clint Penzo, a co-sponsor of the bill, told the Democrat-Gazette that he is working with the state attorney general’s office and state Rep. Rebecca Burkes, who proposed the bill, to strengthen penalties for businesses that violate child labor laws. Rep. Burkes did not respond to Vox’s request for comment by press time.

Michael Lazzeri, the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Regional Administrator said in a statement that their investigation found “Packers Sanitation Services’ systems flagged some young workers as minors, but the company ignored the flags,” indicating that the risk of fines or breaking federal law wasn’t enough to make the company stop employing children.

Additionally, a multistep supply chain often means that the facilities where children are working aren’t technically their employers. Different companies around the country contracted with Packers to clean their facilities. When the supply chain is this convoluted, it’s easier for companies to have plausible deniability about who is working for them.

Other states are poised to follow Arkansas’ lead

After decades of reform trying to make labor safer for everyone, adults and children alike, Arkansas’ new child labor rollbacks seem retrograde, especially given the realities of child labor as exposed by the Labor Department and New York Times investigations.

“Stories of kids dropping out of school, collapsing from exhaustion, and even losing limbs to machinery are what one expects to find in a Charles Dickens or Upton Sinclair novel, but not an account of everyday life in 2023, not in the United States of America,” Rep. Hillary Scholten (D-MI) told the House of Representatives in a February 27 speech.

But the push to roll back child labor protections isn’t just limited to Arkansas, and it follows a decades-long Republican effort to roll back labor protections of all kinds, including by enacting right-to-work legislation and eroding the political power of labor unions.

In a tight labor market such as the US is facing now, there are more jobs available than there are workers who want to do those jobs. Employers offering lower-wage, low-skilled jobs in particular have tried tactics like giving signing bonuses and increasing pay to lure workers to jobs they may have abandoned during the Covid-19 pandemic. But that bait hasn’t been enough to fill the gaps, and some corporations refuse to offer the kinds of wages and benefits that would attract adult workers.

“Because of the high demand for workers, where there are holes in the system, unfortunately child laborers can get caught up in staffing some of those holes,” David Weil, a professor of social policy and management at Brandeis University, told the Washington Post.

States like Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota are now considering looser child labor bills, and Ohio just passed a law allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to work till 9:00 pm all year long.

Per the Iowa bill, children as young as 14 would be allowed to work in certain jobs in meatpacking plants. That bill would also protect businesses from responsibility if a child were injured or killed while on the job. The Iowa Department of Labor declined Vox’s request for comment on the bill.

Following the findings of the Labor Department and the New York Times investigation, the federal government has vowed to crack down on child labor violations, particularly in regard to migrant children. The new initiatives laid out by President Joe Biden’s administration include a proposal to target and hold accountable corporations which use child labor in their supply chains — not just the smaller contractors that are responsible for hiring children. Labor Department officials will also open investigations in states found to be child labor hot spots and ask Congress to increase the fines for FLSA violations, the Times reported last month.

But stopping dangerous and exploitative child labor — particularly when it’s enabled by failures in multiple systems — requires more vigilance and more protection for the vulnerable, not less, as Labor Solicitor Seema Nanda told the Washington Post. “No child should be working in dangerous workplaces in this country, full stop.”