URI professor discusses worsening child labor in the United States

‘We know how to fix the problem, but it is politically unpopular to do so’

KINGSTON, R.I. – March 13, 2023 -In recent weeks, the issue of child labor in the United States – particularly among migrant children – has come under new scrutiny. In mid-February, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a release detailing a $1.5 million penalty paid by Packers Sanitation Services Inc., one of the largest food sanitation companies in the country. An investigation found the company had illegally employed more than 100 children ages 13 to 17 in hazardous jobs, including having them work overnight shifts, at 13 meat processing facilities in eight states. The case was one of the largest in the department’s history.

The next week, The New York Times published an investigative report on the exploitation of migrant child workers arriving as unaccompanied minors in the United States. The report found a shadow workforce, touching virtually every industry in every state in the nation, benefitting not only under-the-table operations, but also global corporations.

According to The Times, “in Los Angeles, children stitch ‘Made in America’ tags into J. Crew shirts. They bake dinner rolls sold at Walmart and Target, process milk used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and help debone chicken sold at Whole Foods. As recently as the fall, middle-schoolers made Fruit of the Loom socks in Alabama. In Michigan, children make auto parts used by Ford and General Motors.” The report was followed just two days later by the Biden Administration’s announcement of a crackdown on labor exploitation of migrant children.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 limited many forms of child labor in an attempt to keep children under 16 from leaving school and keep them from jobs that may be dangerous or harmful to their health. While the law is intended to apply to all children, regardless of their citizenship status, it also largely excluded agricultural work. Child-labor violations are primarily enforced through civil monetary penalties that are not severe enough to act as a deterrent. Additionally, state laws governing child labor vary – and since COVID-19 some states have weakened protections in response to heightened demand for workers.

URI Professor of Political Science Brendan Skip Mark says more resources and stiffer penalties are needed to combat child labor and to make the cost of employing children too risky for businesses to undertake. Mark is co-director of the CIRIGHTS data project – the world’s largest quantitative dataset on global human rights. CIRIGHTS draws on human rights reports from the U.S. Department of State, Amnesty International, the United Nations State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples Report, and other sources. Among those rights recorded are workers’ rights— including fair working conditions and the right to unionize. In total, the new dataset measures 72 internationally recognized rights.

Below, Prof. Mark lends his expertise to provide context around the issue of child labor in the United States – why the issue seems to be gaining more traction, some of its causes, as well as what can be done to help stop it.

Are exploitative child labor practices a serious problem in the United States and how long has this been an issue? Who does this impact most significantly?

Child labor has always been a problem in the United States. It occurs in all industries and is particularly prevalent in agriculture where no laws outlawing child labor exist. Child labor is worsening partly because economic conditions in the U.S. are declining, real wages have been stagnant for decades, inequality is increasing, and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many economic rights violations that existed long before COVID.

The Department of Labor has seen a 69 percent increase in children being employed illegally by companies since 2018. Does this seem to be an accurate assessment? What is driving this this increase?

Child labor is hard to measure. Stigma surrounding child labor gives governments, businesses, and families who benefit from it an incentive to hide it. A lot of child labor also occurs in the informal economy, making it hard to generate reliable estimates of how many children are subjected to it. We often jump on a statistic that provides an estimate because we like to have a number—whether that number is realistic or not. Has child labor increased by 69%, 10%, or 150%? While we can say with a good bit of certainty that child labor has worsened, efforts to be more specific are often guesswork or subject to serious measurement error. Estimates of child labor in the same year from the World Bank and the International Labour Organization can differ by orders of magnitude. Blunter measures are likely to be more reliable – such as the CIRIGHTS measures which use an ordinal scale (a lot of violations, some violations, no violations) or investigations into whether child labor is getting better or worse in a particular sector of the economy.  

Why does this seem to be coming to light only recently?

There have been decades of scholarly work on child labor and media coverage of child labor violations. So rather than this coming to light recently, I’d ask why this issue has become the center of media coverage now even though we’ve known it was a problem for a long time. The New York Times investigation might be one answer. Still, we have many media stories and NGO reports about how common child labor is in the United States. One reason may be that President Biden has made this an issue his administration wants to tackle, so it has become a national issue that isn’t being ignored as it was under past administrations. Another reason may be that our treatment of migrants has increasingly come under international scrutiny. I am more curious whether the issue being brought to light will lead to reforms which reduce child labor or be forgotten when the next big thing hits the news cycle.

To what extent is this a problem of our own making? How do current U.S. economic policies and/or policies and practices related to immigration contribute to this – if at all?

Worsening child labor is a problem of our own making. U.S. economic policies have led to a decline in labor protections, a decline in real wages, an inadequate minimum wage, underfunded schools and teachers, a failing health care system, a housing market crisis that is increasing homelessness and housing insecurity, and an all-around inadequate social safety net. Although the U.S. spends more of our GDP on social spending than Norway (22.7% compared to 20.7%), we score well below them on most economic rights and societal wellbeing measures. We score significantly worse than almost all developed countries on economic rights outcomes. According to the United National Human Rights Council, the United States has the highest youth poverty among OECD-member countries, highest infant mortality rates, a low life expectancy, and the highest rate of income inequality among Western countries. The $1.5 trillion dollar tax cut under former President Trump benefitted the wealthiest and worsened inequality. By neglecting to confront poverty and reduce inequality, we have all but assured child labor will worsen and continue to be a problem.

How likely, or to what degree, is this a problem that can be solved? How?

There is a lot of research on the causes of child labor and what would reduce it. We know how to fix the problem, but it is politically unpopular to do so. Policies that lead to economic security reduce child labor. In contrast, attempts to criminalize child labor often do not work and end up backfiring and putting children in more danger. Similarly, making it harder for migrants to take advantage of social programs, tax credits, and a path to citizenship puts children at risk.

Policies that reduce the economic need for families and children to enter the labor force are the best bet for reducing child labor. Improving the social safety net, providing safe and decent public housing and rent control so that families do not have to choose between sending their child to work or ending up homeless, a universal health care system (since health care bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy), an adequate minimum wage tied to inflation, jobs that pay enough for a family to live on, strong labor laws and labor protections, and investment in public education are all policies that would reduce child labor. Most of these policies are economic rights protected in international human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights, which the United States has not ratified. For example, the Earned Income Tax Credit has been shown to improve how children do in school, college attendance, and earning in the long run. Universal Pre-K and universal childcare would also go a long way to reducing child labor and are issues that have become central to democratic party debate. Adopting a framework that sees economic rights as rights guaranteed by law, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights sought to do (guaranteeing a well-paying job, adequate income, food, time off, housing, health care, social security, and education), would be a good step toward addressing many of our shortcomings.

Similarly, liberalizing our migration and asylum policies could go a long way to reducing child labor among migrant children – many of whom fall prey to child labor out of fear they will be deported. Migrant children and families are often unable to access social safety net programs which might make child labor unnecessary. Similarly, our migration policies often lead to children in the United States being separated from their families. Child labor becomes a way for these children to survive. 

The United States should also devote more resources to investigating and exposing the exploitation of children in the workforce, increase penalties for violations, follow through, and impose penalties more frequently in instances of breach. Bottom line: More government regulation of business is needed to ensure child labor is not occurring and to make the cost of employing children too risky for business.