Our Perennial War, Part V

Children working as miners in Pennsylvania

Child Labor

In my previous posts I looked at the history of the labor movement and at three of the tools used to control the work force. Today I’ll focus on child labor.

Most child labor laws date back to the New Deal, which prohibited it in a variety of occupations and regulated it in others. Agriculture was one of those exempted. Children as young as 12 can legally work on farms (and many begin work even earlier), and an estimated half million youngsters are employed in the fields. Every year approximately 115 children die in an agricultural-related incident–more such fatalities than in all other employments combined –and nearly 12,000 experience a non-fatal injury.

Nowadays even existing protections are being rolled back. In March I reported that since 2021 ten states had introduced, considered, or passed legislation rolling back child labor laws. Today that figure is up to 16 states—all dominated by Republicans. For example, roofers in Florida and Tennessee can now be as young as 12.  Roofing, BTW, is the 4th most dangerous job in America.

Meanwhile, corporations increasingly break existing laws. The United States Department of Labor has documented a 283% increase in child labor violations since 2015, including putting an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old to work in a warehouse. Three teens were killed on the job in the United States this past summer—one in a recycling operation, one in a poultry plant, and one in a lumber mill.

But hey, let’s look at it from the employer’s point of view: Kids work cheap. They wouldn’t have the capacity to fight for their rights even if they knew they had any. On top of that, many of them are migrants and don’t speak English. And if we get caught breaking the law, the maximum fine is “up to $11,000 for each employee…[and] up to $50,000 for each violation that causes the death or serious injury of a minor…” Most times we don’t get caught. And if we do, it’s just the cost of doing business.

The Propagandists, Again

As I noted in Part II of this series, the monarchs of old relied on legions of well-fed scribes and priests to defend the existing order, including the divine right of kings. Today’s rulers can count on equally well-fed think tank scholars, who happily extol the benefits child labor as well as other forms of sweatshop exploitation.

Benjamin Powell, PhD, executive director of the Free Market Institute, says we’re doing the children a favor. He writes of an 11-year-old Bangladeshi girl who processes 150 pair of Hanes underwear per hour, eight hours a day, six days a week. “Passing trade sanctions or other laws that take away the option of children working in sweatshops only limits their options further and throws them into worse alternatives.”

The alternatives he refers to in his writings are no work at all, i.e. starvation, or prostitution, which is legal in Bangladesh. Many Bangladeshi girls enter that occupation before age 12. Powell blithely ignores another option: if factories were required to pay adult workers a living wage, families wouldn’t have to choose between sending their children to sweatshops or to brothels.

Powell defends sweatshops, not just for children but adults as well. He asserts that as the economies of Third World countries mature, employers are forced to raise wages in order to compete for workers. This is “part of the process of development that ultimately raises living standards.”

He isn’t alone in this reasoning. Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winning economist, self-styled liberal, and New York Times columnist, agrees with him.

IMO, their justifications are pure manure. It wasn’t the development of the economy that induced UK and American businesses to cease exploiting children. Pressure from progressive reformers, union organizing, and strikes led to the passage of laws restricting the employment of minors.

So if, according to the above two geniuses, child labor will naturally disappear as economies mature, why is it coming back in our First World, developed, hugely wealthy economy? IMO, the current push to repeal those laws can be directly traced to the destruction of the unions, starting in 1979 in the UK with Margaret Thatcher and in 1980 in the United States with Ronald Reagan. And legislators, always sensitive to the needs of their wealthiest campaign contributors, have responded to pressure from business groups, including the National Federation of Independent Business, the Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association, various statewide business associations, and Americans for Prosperity—a billionaire-funded right-wing dark money group.

And what our corporations do to exploit people overseas flies home to roost. In recent years right-wing think tanks like the Cato Institute have pushed to abolish child labor laws in America, arguing that these rules “stifled opportunity for poor—and especially Black—children.” Gosh, now that machines pick all the cotton in this country, what are those poor little Black kids going to do with themselves? I admit that the Cato argument threw me into a murderous rage.

Of course the children of think tank pundits, corporate executives, and heads of business associations never set foot in factories or chicken processing plants. They receive preferential admission to universities as offspring of alumni or of rich donors or though business connections, to Harvard and Yale (e.g. Bush the Younger) or even the Wharton School of Business (e.g. Trump). Such posh institutions reinforce the ideologies these princelings learn at home, of the righteousness of domination by the wealthy, and of their own sense of entitlement.

In the next post I’ll consider the possible resolutions to this seemingly never-ending conflict.

To be continued…

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