In February the U.S. Department of Labor reported the outcome of one of the largest child labor investigations in its history. Wisconsin-based Packers Sanitation Services Inc. agreed to pay $1.5 million to make amends for 102 child labor law violations.
Federal investigators discovered 31 middle- and high-school students working overnight shifts for P.S.S.I. at 13 meat-processing facilities across eight states. Many of the teens, ages 13 to 17, were working with hazardous equipment and chemicals. At least three had been injured on the job.
A Labor Department spokesperson called the violations a corporate-wide failure, adding, “This can only happen when employers do not take responsibility to prevent child labor violations from occurring in the first place.”
The Labor Department reports a 69 percent increase since 2018 in child labor violations nationally. Last year, the department investigated 835 companies that together had employed more than 3,800 children in violation of U.S. labor laws; almost four times the number recorded in 2015. This year more than 600 new child labor investigations have been opened. These cases likely reflect only a modest view of the true breadth of the problem.
The reappearance of child labor is the bitter outcome of several interrelated economic and hemispheric trends. With unemployment reaching 50-year lows, U.S. employers have been struggling to fill thousands of open positions. At the same time, unaccompanied minors have been heading north to escape poverty and violence in Latin American and Caribbean nations—teens hoping to help families back home and only too willing to accept whatever jobs employers offer despite their age and U.S. law.
It is no coincidence that many of the child labor violations are being discovered in agriculture and food processing, sectors that host large numbers of immigrant laborers. These hard-pressed families often make the agonizing decision to send a child to work to make ends meet, and many employers are only too willing to accept dubious paperwork that attests to a child worker’s age.
Instead of cracking down on violators, however, some states are changing laws to make it easier to hire teens for what had been previously considered unsafe and off-limits employment. In Arkansas, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed off on a new law that eliminates age verification requirements for youth workers, and other state legislators are debating bills that allow teens as young as 14 to work in meat packing and construction jobs. Other proposals would protect businesses from civil liability if teen workers get injured or sickened on the job.
Once again the U.S. economy is put ahead of family and human dignity. Rather than raise wages to draw adult workers on the economic sidelines back into the workforce, businesses and the politicians that serve them are weakening common sense labor rules, using minors to expand the U.S. workforce to keep labor costs down.
Speaking at a Vatican conference on eradicating child labor in November 2021, Pope Francis called the persistence of child labor “shocking and disturbing.” Child labor deprives children of an education, endangers their mental and physical well-being, Francis said, and, more poignantly, “deprives them of the right . . . to live their childhood with joy and serenity.”
We can prevent this 19th-century labor ghoul from reestablishing itself in 21st-century America, but inspection capacity must be beefed up, fines must be hiked to levels that create real corporate pain, and managers must face criminal charges, not fines. And it wouldn’t hurt if states set minimum wages high enough that parents are not compelled to pink-slip their kids’ childhoods.
This article also appears in the May 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 5, page 42). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: archives.gov/Lewis Hine