US cracks down on child labour violations amid loosening laws

A child died in a sawmill accident this month, as some Republican-led states move to relax child labour restrictions.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Governor, State of Arkansas speaks at the 2023 Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California.
Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed into law a bill that would loosen Arkansas’s child labour laws [File: Mike Blake/Reuters]

The United States Department of Labor has reached an agreement with a food company after two children were discovered operating meat-processing equipment, in violation of federal law.

The agreement, announced on Friday, is the latest in the department’s crackdown on child labour violations, which have surged in recent years, as several states move to loosen workplace protections for youths.

“The Department of Labor and the Biden-Harris administration see child labour as a scourge in this country and will not tolerate violations of child labour laws,” Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda said in Friday’s press release, underscoring President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’s stance on the issue.

The company in question, Monogram Meat Snacks, will be fined $30,276 in civil money penalties for employing “at least two 16- and 17-year-old children” at its plant in Chandler, Minnesota.

The legislature in Minnesota is among the estimated 14 state governments that have considered relaxing child labour laws over the past two years, with some like Iowa and Arkansas successfully passing measures.

A man in a gold helmet and a white lab coat tours a meat factory, passing stacked trays of red meat.
US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, centre, has pushed meat suppliers to review their hiring practices, as the Biden administration cracks down on child labour violations [File: Josh Funk/AP Photo]

The Iowa law — which came into effect on July 1 — creates exceptions for teenagers of a certain age to work in potentially dangerous situations, like manufacturing or meat coolers. It also allows them to serve alcohol with their parents’ permission, something forbidden to drink under the age of 21 in the country.

Iowa’s new standards also permit children younger than 16 to work up to six hours during school days, up from the previous cap of four hours.

Iowa Democrats have opposed the legislation, and state Senator Nate Boulton has requested a federal review of its legality.

In an initial letter in May, the Labor Department told Boulton, “The proposed Iowa legislation appears to be inconsistent with federal child labor law in several respects,” setting the stage for a conflict between state and federal restrictions.

But the stakes, according to critics of the relaxed restrictions, could mean life or death.

Earlier this month, a 16-year-old boy died from his injuries after a workplace incident at a sawmill in Florence County, Wisconsin.

“On Thursday, June 29th, at 6:51am the Florence County Sheriff’s office received a 911 call for an unresponsive 16-year-old male at Florence Hardwoods,” a statement from Chief Deputy Teresa Chrisman said.

“We sadly report that the teen has succumbed to his injuries from this industrial accident and passed away on July 1st.”

A GoFundMe page to raise money for the victim’s family explained that the 16-year-old had been transported to a hospital in Milwaukee, where he was put on life support before his death.

The child “was hurt very badly”, one of the fundraiser’s organisers wrote, identifying herself as the teenager’s aunt. “His injuries are awful. Everyone is broken. There are no words to convey the sorrow and sadness.”

A girl walks outside a migrant camp near the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico November 8, 2021.
Critics of loosened child labour laws warn the risks could disproportionately fall on migrant youth [File: Toya Sarno Jordan/Reuters]

Wisconsin is among the states that recently weighed lifting some of its child labour restrictions. Legislation introduced in May would permit children as young as 14 to serve alcohol in restaurants, down from the current age limit of 18.

One of the bill’s sponsors, state Senator Rob Stafsholt, told the Washington Post that the bill was inspired, in part, by worker shortages during the religious observance of Lent.

He also framed the proposal as an exercise of individual freedom over government interference.

“Those kids are actually learning that the government shouldn’t restrict what you can and can’t do in your abilities to have a job and earn income,” he said.

Also this year, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed into law a bill that nixed a requirement for child labourers to obtain an “employment certificate”, verifying their age, their work schedule and parental consent.

A man in a dark suit and light blue tie, with glasses, stands in front of a US flag.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra has called on local law enforcement and civic leaders to ‘do their part to protect children’ [File: Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo]

But Marty Walsh, who stepped down this year as US secretary of labour, argued that more protections, not less, are needed to prevent workplace abuses and risks to child safety.

“We see every day the scourge of child labour in this country, and we have a legal and a moral obligation to take every step in our power to prevent it,” he said in a February press release.

“Too often, companies look the other way and claim that their staffing agency or their subcontractor or supplier is responsible. Everyone has a responsibility here.”

At the time, the Labor Department found a 69 percent uptick in the illegal employment of children in US workplaces. In 2022 alone, a total of 3,876 children were found to be working illegally, with 688 employed in violation of hazardous occupation standards.

Over 600 investigations were also under way, to suss out other potential violations. The department noted that migrant children were particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

“This is not a 19th-century problem — this is a today problem,” Walsh said at the time. “We need Congress to come to the table, we need states to come to the table.”

Source: Al Jazeera