The alarming surge of child labor in the U.S.: Profit vs. safety
Elias Khoury
The White House and a stop sign in Washington, D.C., the United States, August 4, 2022. /Xinhua
The White House and a stop sign in Washington, D.C., the United States, August 4, 2022. /Xinhua

The White House and a stop sign in Washington, D.C., the United States, August 4, 2022. /Xinhua

Editor's note: Elias Khoury is the managing editor of the Hampton Institute and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily those of CGTN.

In a declining empire, anything goes. As Rome fell, elites were ravished in untold debauchery while a paralyzed state failed to meet the needs of common people. You could tell a similar story about the contemporary United States. The upper crust of American society lives lavishly while the national community as a whole is deeply diseased. Things developed countries are supposed to take for granted - like public safety - simply do not exist. The United States sees well over one mass shooting per day with no policy response in sight. Many of these atrocities occur in schools. Nobody is safe - not even children. 

When American kids are not falling prey to heavily armed killers, they're increasingly being exploited by rapacious employers. The United States is currently experiencing a shocking surge in child labor. Child labor law violations have increased in the U.S., with a 37 percent increase in the fiscal year 2022, including 688 children working in hazardous conditions. Mainstream media has primed this perturbing trend by crowing incessantly about a supposed labor shortage. The popular narrative has put considerable pressure on politicians to find solutions. Assuming the diagnosis is even correct, there are more and less damaging courses of action. 

One relatively constructive solution to the problem of too few workers would be to raise wages. This would encourage workforce participation by making jobs more desirable. Even absent a labor shortage, America's workers could use a raise. Despite skyrocketing living costs due to capitalism in decay, the federal minimum wage has not budged since 2009. It remains a measly $7.25 per hour - hardly enough for a specialty drink from Starbucks and barely half of what it was in 1958 once you adjust for inflation. 

To no one's surprise, the conservative movement is not fighting to raise the wage. Instead, they are trying to fill holes in the labor market by putting kids to work. Across America, Republican state lawmakers are seeking a return to a more exploitative era by gutting restrictions on child labor. 

Earlier this month, Iowa's right-wing legislature passed a bill expanding how long children can work. It would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to toil up to six hours daily during the school year. Under the legislation, 16- and 17-year-olds would be able to "work the same hours as an adult." 

The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, Iowa, the United States, March 16, 2019. /Xinhua
The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, Iowa, the United States, March 16, 2019. /Xinhua

The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, Iowa, the United States, March 16, 2019. /Xinhua

The headline items in this bill are troubling enough. But the smaller provisions hidden in the text are perhaps even more ominous. The Iowa legislation would let "teens as young as 16… serve alcohol in restaurants" provided a guardian approves. 

Republicans in Minnesota are pursuing similar policies. They authored a bill that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work in construction and on building sites. These jobs are already perilous even for adults of full mental and physical maturation. The thought of exposing children to such danger is alarming. Despite vocal support from far-right Minnesota legislators, the bill, fortunately, failed to advance beyond the committee. Even if the legislation had reached the floor for a vote, slim Democratic majorities may have defeated it. 

But that doesn't mean Democrats are necessarily reliable child advocates. Last year, in New Jersey, Democratic Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation allowing 16-year-olds to work up to 50 hours per week during the summer with parental approval. Rather than mount a serious challenge, New Jersey Democrats voted for the bill overwhelmingly. It passed unanimously in the state senate and with only a few dissenters in the 80-member assembly. This was despite strong Democratic majorities in both chambers. 

Corporations are welcoming this wave of rollbacks. In addition to tax breaks and lax regulations, the industry desires a docile and obedient workforce. And kids are typically easier to bully and coerce into toiling quietly under intolerable conditions. So it is no surprise that abuses of child laborers in the United States are widespread. This is especially true of those who came to the country as undocumented immigrants. 

As an investigation from The New York Times found, "These workers are part of a new economy of exploitation - migrant children, who have been coming into the United States without their parents in record numbers, are ending up in some of the most punishing jobs" imaginable. The ranks of juvenile migrant laborers have "exploded since 2021" as the "systems meant to protect children have broken down."

This explosion of child labor is perhaps the single best symbol of American decline. As peer countries leap into the new age, the United States is attempting to revive old and barbaric institutions. In an era of evolving and expanding risk, we should hope such a nation does not lead the world. 

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