It’s Time for Renewed Activism in Combating Child Labor

When news began surfacing this year about the exploitation of migrant child laborers in U.S. factories and businesses, it made clear the urgent need for union and community leaders to renew their activism in combating child labor. Such activism helped curtail profound abuses in the past, and it must do so again.

This past February, New York Times journalist Hannah Dreier brought to readers’ attention the voices and stories of migrant children working in slaughterhouses, factories, and dangerous construction sites throughout the U.S. These are children who left their homes as “unaccompanied minors,” arriving in the U.S. to stay with relatives or acquaintances they never met – or, worse, with predatory “sponsors” who keep them in punishing debt. The children usually come here with the intention of sending remittances home to their poverty-stricken families.

Dreier introduced her readers to 15-year-old Carolina Yoc, who left her grandmother last year in an impoverished village in Guatemala, ultimately walking across the U.S. southern border, and eventually settling with an aunt she had never met. We meet Carolina working at midnight in a manufacturing plant in Grand Rapids, Michigan, packing cheerios into cartons on a conveyor belt that had, for other fatigued or distracted workers, torn off fingers and, in one case, “ripped open a woman’s scalp.”

Carolina has stayed in school (9th grade), but the demands of the work, as Dreier noted, are immensely stressful and fatiguing. Carolina explains, “Sometimes I get tired and feel sick. But I’m getting used to it.”

Dreier doesn’t neglect to point out that adolescents are twice as likely to be injured on the job as adults, and she names some of the migrant child workers killed on the job in recent years: a 16-year-old crushed by an earthmover near Atlanta, a 14-year-old hit by a car when delivering food on his bike in Brooklyn, a 15-year-old who fell 50 feet on his first day of work as a roofer in Alabama.

In a tight labor market, many employers use child laborers instead of providing competitive wages and benefits that would attract adult workers. As Dreier and other reporters have noted, such employers illegally look the other way when ostensibly checking on young workers’ ages and I.D.’s. And, as Jacob Bogage and Maria Luisa Paul of the Washington Post have reported, an influential conservative think tank, the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), has been working to make an exploitative situation legal in a number of states. In Arkansas, for example, the FGA provided a legislative template and lobbying power to eliminate the requirement of work permits and age verification for children under 16.

In the past – as far back as the 1880’s – unions stepped up to call for legislation restricting labor practices that put young kids on 10-hour shifts in mines and 12-hour shifts in textile mills. Organizations like the National Consumers’ League (founded in 1899) and the National Child Labor Committee (1904) advocated for decades on behalf of protections, with their work helping lead to the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, a bill that, for the first time, enshrined protections and limits for child workers in enduring law.

Such activism is needed today, particularly at a time when migrant children are especially vulnerable. As recently reported, the gridlock in Congress over the related issues of immigration and child labor has blocked, at least for the immediate future, any meaningful congressional action on behalf of these children. This is why union leaders and community activists must fill in the gap – must vigorously speak out and organize now.

Andrew Moss is an emeritus professor from the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught a course, “War and Peace in Literature,” for 10 years.