Big Business Attacks Child Labor Laws

Photo of an unidentified child who was working at a U.S. meat processing plant. (Photo: Department of Labor)

Reported violations of state and federal child labor laws are on the rise nationwide. From meatpacking plants to construction sites to food packaging and coffee harvesting, teenagers, mostly immigrants, are being exploited in violation of longstanding child labor laws.

Now let’s be clear — this isn’t all that new. Businesses trying to hire the cheapest and most vulnerable workers they can is simply part of the capitalist system and the drive to accumulate profit. They want cheap labor, and they don’t want workers to complain or talk back or stand up for themselves. And as these recent reports show, they routinely violate labor laws to get those types of young, desperate workers to exploit ruthlessly. But there have been some basic laws protecting children from exploitation, and so, for decades there has been the appearance of a basic understanding that companies should be at least publicly shamed if they use child labor.

But that time seems to be coming to an end quickly. The number of undocumented migrant children in the U.S. has increased in recent years, and the practice of corporations exploiting child labor has become so widespread that companies don’t even want to maintain the pretense anymore that there is something wrong with relying on child labor. And many Republican politicians are now openly calling for getting rid of, or at the very least weakening, laws designed to protect young people from such abuse. Republicans in Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ohio are either debating or have approved laws designed to increase the exploitation of child labor. Arkansas Governor and former Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders just signed into law a bill that eliminates the requirement that children under age 16 get parental consent to work, making it easier for businesses to hire young, migrant workers who may not be living with their parents, or who may have exploitative guardians. It’s not just Republicans, too. In New Jersey, Democratic Governor, Presidential hopeful, and former Goldman-Sachs multi-millionaire, Phil Murphy, signed a Republican-backed bill into law that allows kids 16 years up to work 50 hours per week over summer months. And even though the Biden administration has spoken out whenever illegal child labor practices make headlines, they absolutely know how widespread the practice is and have chosen to do nothing about it.

This push is being financed by the same big businesses who want to more fully exploit child labor. Recent reports have highlighted how big business interests and front groups are behind the push. The National Federation of Independent Businesses (which promotes itself as small business but is in fact funded by many big corporations), Americans for Prosperity (a Koch Industries front group), the Home Builders Association of Iowa (developers), the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce (funded by big businesses), the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce (also funded by big businesses) and many others are funding bills and politicians who support these bills. And of course, some of the biggest businesses in the United States, like the private investment firm Blackstone, own some of the companies who profit from child labor. So, despite already existing violations of these laws, in fact, the trend is likely only to increase.

Capitalists are pushing their political pawns to pass laws that will help them profit more on the backs of an increasing number of vulnerable, child workers. And it is clear that the politicians are eager to do their bidding.