Child Labor Ignored by Federal Government, Encouraged By States

In late February of 2023, Hannah Dreier of the New York Times released an investigative article which uncovered thousands of migrant children having to work a variety of dangerous jobs for large companies across the United States against child labor laws. Days after the article’s release, the White House announced that:

at [President Biden’s] direction, the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services announced new actions to crack down on child labor violations and ensure that sponsors of unaccompanied migrant children are vigorously, rigorously vetted.

However, Hannah Dreier has since released another article on April 17th which indicates that the Biden administration had ample opportunity to uncover this issue and address it in a proactive manner, but either “ignored or missed” it:

Again and again, veteran government staffers and outside contractors told the Health and Human Services Department, including in reports that reached Secretary Xavier Becerra, that children appeared to be at risk. The Labor Department put out news releases noting an increase in child labor. Senior White House aides were shown evidence of exploitation, such as clusters of migrant children who had been found working with industrial equipment or caustic chemicals.

And White House officials said that while the two departments had passed along information about migrant child labor, the reports were not flagged as urgent and did not make clear the scope of the problem. Robyn M. Patterson, a White House spokeswoman, said in a statement that the administration was now increasing scrutiny of employers and reviewing its vetting of sponsors.

It appears that the Biden administration only acknowledged the issue of migrant child labor after it became a matter of public conversation.

Eroding the Foundations

Stepping back from the federal level, the Economic Policy Institute released a report on March 14th finding that a plethora of states has been repealing child labor laws over the past two years:

While federal agencies are ramping up enforcement of child labor protections in response to increasing violations (DOL 2022b), industry groups are working to roll back child labor protections via state legislation.

Already in 2023, eight bills to weaken child labor protections have been introduced in six Midwestern states (Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and South Dakota) and in Arkansas, where a bill repealing restrictions on work for 14- and 15-year-olds has now been signed into law. One bill introduced in Minnesota would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work on construction sites.1 Ten states have introduced, considered, or passed legislation rolling back protections for young workers in just the past two years

The proposal of these bills is often highly partisan in nature. Ten of these bills were sponsored exclusively or overwhelmingly by Republicans. One was sponsored in a bipartisan manner, with Democrats being overrepresented, and one more was sponsored exclusively or overwhelmingly by Democrats.

The report also asserts that “[a]ttempts to weaken state-level child labor standards are part of a coordinated campaign backed by industry groups intent on eventually diluting federal standards that cover the whole country.”

Hand in Hand

One of the bills referenced by this analysis is Arkansas’ Youth Hiring Act of 2023, which was signed into law by governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders on March 6th. NPR summarizes the new law as such:

Under the Youth Hiring Act of 2023, children under 16 don’t have to get the Division of Labor’s permission to be employed. The state also no longer has to verify the age of those under 16 before they take a job. The law doesn’t change the hours or kinds of jobs kids can work.

By removing the requirement of the state needing to verify these children’s ages before they can be employed, it would seem that it will be easier for companies to hire children who are younger than 14 years old (the minimum legal age that a child can be hired in Arkansas). Liability is removed from companies in Arkansas, as they could simply state that children younger than 14 lied about their age before being hired. Some news commentators suggest that the harmful outcomes of removing this restriction will mostly affect migrant children, as they are much less likely to have parents looking out for them.

Organizations: New York Times White House 

People: Hannah Dreier Joe Biden 

Tags: Child Labor 

Type: News