color photograph of a small outdoor protest against child labor
BOLINGBROOK, ILLINOIS - MARCH 06: A small group of activists gather near the Hearthside Foods packaging facility on March 6, 2023, in Bolingbrook, Illinois. The activists are accusing Hearthside of employing child workers hired through temporary employment agencies at their facility. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On March 11, we reached the third anniversary of the WHO declaring COVID-19 a pandemic. The push to return to “business as usual” has only gotten stronger amid political and capitalist concerns about the state of the U.S. economy. Business owners—particularly those in industries like meatpacking, agriculture, manufacturing, and construction—continue to bemoan how difficult it is to find enough workers to meet industry demands. Their complaints contradict research showing that the issue is less about a shortage of workers and more about the lack of adequate wages and safety practices.  

While workers have made it abundantly clear that they’ll return to service, agriculture, and factory jobs in exchange for living wages and safe working conditions, employers and elected officials have something else in mind to expand the labor force: enabling child labor.

Several states have already proposed legislation to ease restrictions on youth workers. Iowa legislators want to expand the state’s exceptions for child labor laws to allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work in meatpacking plants so long as it’s part of an “approved program,” and Minnesota legislators are proposing to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work in construction. Ohio reintroduced a bill to expand the number of hours 14- and 15-year-olds are allowed to work with parental permission, similar to a bill passed by the GOP-led Wisconsin legislature but vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers. Last year, New Jersey passed a bill expanding the hours teenagers can work when schools are not in session. In Arkansas, it’s illegal to employ children under 14 years old, but Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently signed a bill rolling back state requirements to verify the ages of workers under the age of 16, making it easier to employ 15- and 14-year-olds.

Proponents insist that these bills will not only help the economy but also benefit the very same children they aim to exploit. In an interview with Business Insider, Minnesota state Sen. Rich Draheim, who authored the state’s bill, insisted that age restrictions hurt young people by denying them access to work and that easing child labor restrictions will allow “businesses [to] teach these youth workers skills that will prepare them for their future, and maybe even attract them to their industry for life.”

The idea that children are being harmed by not working longer hours in high-risk environments—despite research pointing to the exact opposite—and that businesses just want to prepare children for a bright future—while paying them less than adults for their first 90 days of work thanks to federal “youth wages” laws—would be laughable if it wasn’t taking place amid a new rise in child labor law violations. What’s so chilling is how these simultaneous movements reveal whom our laws and culture prioritize when it comes to labor and whom they’re willing to sacrifice in the name of profit margins and capitalism. 

For those like Draheim, expecting businesses to pay adults fair wages and passing legislation supporting that goal run counter to their political motivations of continuing systemic oppressions. These latest bills show us they want to feed corporate profits and greed and expand their power to harm youth—many of whom already carry extraordinary burdens like mental health issues, climate crisis fears, queerphobic and transphobic persecution, racism, xenophobia, poverty, and an ongoing pandemic. But rather than protecting low-income, working-class families and children, the state continues to slash COVID-era support systems like SNAP and Medicaid

It’s undeniable that the children who are most likely to be those sacrificed for profit are those our institutions already considered unworthy of nurturing and care. As ​​Debbie Berkowitz, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, noted in an interview with The Washington Post, it’s children from low-income communities—which tend to be majority Black, brown, and immigrant families—who are often hired for trade-oriented roles. These jobs primarily involve menial, sometimes physically demanding and dangerous, tasks that provide little in the way of actual transferrable professional skills. 

If Draheim’s justifications for changing child labor laws sound familiar, it’s because they’re inextricably linked to the enslavement of Black people in the U.S. and racist beliefs around productivity and value that are foundational to the country and its culture. At the end of the Civil War, freed enslaved children were once again trapped by apprentice agreements with former enslavers. Courts and legislators justified these practices by arguing that those children would learn “the habits of industry,” including techniques, behaviors, and practices that their freed parents ostensibly lacked. It was, essentially, legally forced assimilation and exploitation of freed Black children into the culture of white (former) enslavers.

Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, child labor was not only acceptable, but expected to maintain an industrialized economy. Even the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 left the door open for industries to continue taking advantage of Black and other vulnerable children to meet labor demands, echoing white post-Reconstruction era fears about the growing economic power and autonomy of Black workers, particularly in farming. The agricultural industry still receives a large number of exemptions, including the allowance of children as young as 12 to work unlimited hours as long as they have parental permission and don’t miss school. The list of “particularly hazardous” jobs that 16-year-olds are allowed to perform hasn’t been updated since 1970.

Laws meant to prohibit child labor are continually violated and with little consequence. While large-scale industries such as meatpacking and other factory-based work tend to receive the most scrutiny, child labor abuses persist across industries in the U.S. According to the Department of Labor, there has been a 69% increase in the number of children employed in labor law violations since 2018, an abuse that migrant children, in particular, are subjected to. 

Over the last year alone, 835 companies exploited over 3,800 children as part of their labor force, and there are 600 ongoing investigations nationwide. Recent investigations revealed child labor law violations at meatpacking companies affiliated with corporate giants JBS USA, Turkey Valley Farms, and Packers Sanitation Services. The New York Times recently uncovered how companies like Fruit of the Loom, Ben & Jerry’s, J. Crew, and Hearthside Food Solutions, which produces brands such as Cheetos, Nature Valley, and Chewy, directly exploit migrant children or contract with manufacturers that do. 

The U.S. only truly values safety and well-being for some children, and it does nothing to protect marginalized children. The U.S. is openly hostile to children who are not white, cis, able-bodied, heterosexual, or from wealthy families—especially when money and power are at stake. Rather than protect all children, elected officials continue fearmongering with anti-trans bills, legislation that strips access to reproductive health and bodily autonomy, and censorship of children’s education to maintain white supremacist and christofascist goals.

As Terri Gerstein noted in Slate, the lack of workers rights and labor organizing history taught in schools means that children are particularly vulnerable to predatory labor practices because they’re unlikely to know what labor rights and protections they’re entitled to. 

Ultimately, our policies around child labor have been shaped by a system that justified chattel slavery and toxic, bigoted beliefs that some people are products worth only as much as their productivity. And those who hold the most power still see children not as people deserving of protection, health, and happiness, but as a resource to be used regardless of consequence, especially when they’re not the kind of children valued by a white supremacist capitalist economy.

Michi Trota

Michi Trota is an essayist and speaker who often focuses on exploring issues of identity, culture, community, representation, and social justice through analyzing and deconstructing narratives around pop...