Republicans attack US child labor laws as violations mount

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As child labor law violations are on the rise in the United States, some state lawmakers are pushing for changes at the state and federal levels to reduce protections in what some see as a threat to the return of child labor to the country.

The laws aim to extend the hours of work permitted, expand the types of work that young workers are allowed to perform, and protect employers from liability for occupational injury, illness or death involving very young workers.

Related: Sanitation company accused of employing 31 children in animal slaughterhouses

Child labor law violations have been on the rise in the United States, up 37% in fiscal 2022, including 688 children working in hazardous conditions, with the number likely to be much higher as the recorded violations stem from what was found during labor inspections.

The Labor Department issued a press release in July 2022 noting that child labor violations and investigations have increased since 2015.

Several high-profile investigations involving child labor have been uncovered in the past year, including the use of child labor at Hyundai and Kia supply chains in Alabama, JBS meat packing plants in Nebraska and Minnesota, and of fast food restaurants including McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts and Chipotle.

Amid these increases in child labor violations, legislative efforts have been introduced in several states to reduce child labor protections.

In Iowa, Republican lawmakers introduced a bill in January to expand the types of work 14- and 15-year-olds would be allowed to do under approved training programs, extend the hours they can work, and exempt employers from liability if these young workers become ill, injured or die on the job.

“It’s just crazy to me that we’re re-questioning a lot of things that feel like they were settled 100, 120 or 140 years ago,” said Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa AFL-CIO, which opposes the bill.

It’s just crazy to me that we are re-questioning a lot of things that seem to have been solved 100, 120 or 140 years ago

Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa AFL-CIO

Wishman added, “All of these protections have been put in place for a reason. The Child Labor Act is there to ensure that children work in jobs or occupations that are appropriate for their age. We think this is a rewrite of our Iowa child labor laws that are going far, far, too far and has the potential to put children in dangerous situations.

The bill would allow the Iowa director of workforce development or the Iowa Department of Education to grant exceptions to any provision that limits the types of work 14- and 15-year-olds can do if the job is classified as part of a work based learning program and also deprives workers’ compensation rights for these workers.

The protections required for companies are of particular interest to trade union activists.

“In Iowa law, one of the provisions is to exempt employers from liability for business negligence. It’s amazing that they have the courage to knowingly acknowledge that more young people will be harmed, yet focus on exempting businesses,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Occupational Safety and Health Council.

Goldstein-Gelb explained that throughout her career she has worked with families and colleagues of young workers who died on the job, often in violation of child labor laws that industry groups have fought to repeal, such as where a 16 A one-year-old boy in Massachusetts was killed in 2000 while using a golf cart at work.

Young workers have much higher rates of non-fatal work-related injuries and higher rates of injuries requiring emergency room attention, Goldstein-Gelb noted. She argued that due to the vulnerability and inexperience of young workers, data on these workers is likely to be underreported due to fears or barriers in being able to speak up and report dangerous situations or violations of child labor laws.

“I think there is this myth that you have to put young people into any job you can because there are opportunities. I think we are entering a new era where we need to recognize that workers of all ages are trying to earn a living sustainably and not put themselves in harm’s way,” Goldstein-Gelb added. “That’s why there are workers taking action across the country and that needs to be supported rather than just saying we’re going to find people who have no alternatives, the most vulnerable, and put them into completely inappropriate jobs.”

Other states are currently or have passed similar legislation to roll back child labor protections.

In Ohio, lawmakers this year reintroduced a bipartisan bill to extend work hours for 14- and 15-year-olds with permission from a parent or legal guardian, and they called on Congress to take the same steps a federal level.

Minnesota lawmakers introduced a bill in January 2023 to extend work hours for 14- and 15-year-olds.

Wisconsin Republicans passed a bill vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers this month that would have expanded work hours for 14- and 15-year-olds. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a similar law in 2022 that extended working hours for 14- and 15-year-olds to work longer hours during the summer months and on holidays and extended the permitted working hours for 16- and 17-year-olds. old.

Federally, Republican Congressman Dave Joyce of Ohio drafted a bill in 2022 to expand work hours for 14- and 15-year-olds during school-open periods.

Supporters of legislative efforts to roll back child labor regulations cited labor shortages, particularly in industries that depend on young workers, and were strongly supported by the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

We think these laws are really inconsiderate and just asking children to have negative educational impacts

Reid Maki of the Child Labor Coalition

“We think these laws are really reckless and just asking children to have negative educational impacts,” said Reid Maki, director of child labor issues and coordinator at the Child Labor Coalition, who said significant efforts were needed to enact child labor laws over 100 years ago when there were thousands of children working long hours in unsafe jobs such as factories and mines.

Maki added: “Now there are states that want to go back in that direction to address the labor shortage by using teenagers, even to the point of placing them in dangerous work environments – [it] it does not make sense. He’s neglecting their well-being.

He argued that child labor laws in the US need to be strengthened and updated, including closing existing loopholes that allow young workers, some as young as 12, to work unlimited hours in many agricultural jobs with parental permission when school is not in session.

An estimated 300,000 to 500,000 minors work in the U.S. agricultural sector each year, with 48 percent of all deaths among young workers between 2001 and 2015 occurring in the agricultural sector.

“In my office, we can’t bring a 12-year-old to make copies, 12 is too young, but we will take the same 12-year-old and put him in a field. The current law allows them to work unlimited hours as long as the school is not open,” Maki added. “There is basically no protection.”

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