The United States has a troubled history with child labor. Compared to Great Britain, which passed numerous laws regulating child labor between 1802 and 1878, and the various European nations that quickly followed suit, the United states didn’t pass a federal bill addressing child labor until 1918. That, and another passed in 1922 were subsequently deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and it wasn’t until 1938 that congress was finally able to pass (and keep) a child labor reform bill. Called the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), it restricts the kind of jobs children are able to work and regulates the minimum age and the maximum hours a week children can work in those industries. States pass their own child labor reform bills prior to and after the FLSA, but this was the first nation-wide step towards child labor reform in the United States.
Photo: Martin Kníže on Unsplash
And while child labor in the US has dramatically improved, child labor continues to be a contentious issue in the United States. In fact, the situation appears to have gotten worse.
Since 2010, state legislators across the country have worked to weaken and lessen child labor regulations. According to a 2014 report in The Atlantic, states including Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maine increased the number of hours 16 and 17 year-olds could work per week. In 2014, Minnesota legislature created a minimum youth wage, allowing employers to pay minors less than adults.
Similarly, a majority of states have and continue to cut budgets of the agencies that enforce child and other labor laws. Ohio retained only six labor investigators in 2011 after attempting to eliminate funding all together, and voted to cut the budget an additional 25% over the next two years. In 2011, Missouri had 9 labor investigators--already a paltry number--but by 2014 they’d lost four more. California lost 11% of its labor violation inspectors in the same span of time.
However, loss of regulation and protection is not isolated to state legislatures. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), a Department of Labor agency that investigates labor law violations, has faced dramatic cutbacks as well. Between 1980 and 2014, OSHA lost 600 labor investigators, resulting in only 864 investigators to cover all labor law violations, not just child labor. During that same time, the number of workplaces in the US has doubled.
These efforts to decrease regulation primarily affect children in non-agricultural industries, as the agricultural industry has always been regulated more loosely. A 2013 article in The Nation states that this difference originates with loopholes in FLSA itself. As was common post-Civil War and during Jim Crow, loopholes in federal laws and even constitutional amendments were often made to appease Southern legislators that also just so happened to inhibit the economic and political prosperity of blacks. Just as the loophole in the 13th Amendment enabled the continuation of (black) slave labor via incarceration, the loopholes in the FLSA enabled Southern farmers to continue using (black) child labor. As The Nation points out, it’s now migrant children who are exploited in agriculture.
With parental permission, children as young as 12 (and even younger on small farms) can work agricultural jobs for unlimited hours outside typical school hours, whereas the minimum working age in non-agriculture sectors is typically 14 (often with restricted hours worked per week). While children in non-agriculture industries can’t have hazardous jobs until age 18, the minimum age in agriculture is 16.
In 2011, former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis proposed a number of agricultural child labor reforms, including restricting children under 16 from working tobacco farms and increased safety measures for child agricultural laborers working with pesticides, manure pits, and other potential dangers. However, any discussion of reform was dropped only a year later due to corporate lobbying, and it hasn’t been addressed since.
Child labor is a surprisingly controversial issue in desperate need of reform. Yes, the FLSA means we no longer see young children working 12 hour days in hazardous factory conditions, but that is only one presentation of a multi-faceted issue. Every year, thousands of children--often those of migrant farmworkers--handle sharp tools and heavy machinery, are exposed to toxic pesticides, and, if on a tobacco farm, face the harmful effects of nicotine poisoning. Yet, at the behest of Big Agriculture, the federal government chose to actively ignore such obvious forms of exploitation. At the state level, politicians across the country are slowly dismantling already established protections and requirements.
Issues like child labor are invisible because children are invisible. They’re voiceless in a society that demands self-advocacy yet those elected to protect and uplift children are the very ones exploiting their innate vulnerability for profit.
Charlotte Lerner-Wright graduated in 2018 from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. An apparent masochist and downright nerd, she will return to school in the fall of 2019 to get her Master's in history at the University of Edinburgh. Outside the classroom, you can find Charlotte cuddling her three tiny dogs, drinking Thai iced tea, and drawing while binge-watching Netflix. She hopes to one day use history to empower the disenfranchised and invoke lasting change.