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Child Labor: How US is Failing Its Most Vulnerable for the Sake of Profit

CC0 / Pixabay / A father sitting next to his son
A father sitting next to his son - Sputnik International, 1920, 05.12.2022
Child labor is by no means a thing of the past in the United States: earlier this year, children as young as 12-13 were reported working at metal stamping and meatpacking plants, doing hazardous jobs. Why has the shameful practice of child exploitation made a comeback in one of the world’s richest countries?
The Department of Labor (DOL) found 3,876 kids working in breach of labor rules in the US in fiscal year 2022. These include a shocking child labor case at the Packers Sanitation Services corporation, which was sued by the DOL last month, and a scandal involving three underage employees, between 12 and 15 years old, working for the SMART Alabama factory, a Hyundai subsidiary.
"How common is child labor? Well, those numbers have to be the floor, right? Who knows how much goes unreported, uninvestigated, and unpunished," Jacob Morrison, secretary-treasurer of the North Alabama Area Labor Council, a regional body of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), told Sputnik.

"For example, one of the Hyundai suppliers in Alabama that was found to be utilizing child labor has had their case run its course it seems, resulting in an about $30,000 fine from the AL DOL and an around $30,000 fine from the US DOL, plus prohibitions on shipping goods manufactured during a 30-day period before or after the violation, which was three children working in prohibited areas," he continued.

While the Hyundai subsidiary faced penalties for exploiting three kids, it remains unclear what the real extent of SMART's utilization of children is, Morrison notes. According to him, the actual number of underage employees at the plant has to have been multiples of that number.
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Hazardous Conditions

One needs to bear in mind that it’s not only child labor, but also working in hazardous and traumatic conditions that is prohibited for minors.
For instance, the US mainstream media cited a 2017 study by the National Employment Law Project which ranked meatpacking plants Packers Sanitation Services 14th in terms of severe injury reports nationwide among 14,000 companies tracked by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). At least four amputations and three fatalities, including one case of decapitation, among Packers employees have been reported since 2018.
When it comes to minors, the potentiality of injuries and lethal cases is even higher, judging from a report released by Massachusetts Department of Public Health in September 2018. The study found that there were nearly two emergency department (ED) visits by teens for every 100 full-time teen workers, which is 42% higher than the rate for adults aged 25 and older.
While no single set of data presents the full picture of injuries to teen workers, the report specified that open wounds, including cuts, made up close to half (48%) of all work-related injuries seen in EDs.
Meanwhile, dozens of teens – some as young as 13 – reportedly worked overnight shifts cleaning machines "used to cut meat" at Packers' Minnesota and Nebraska facilities. Make no mistake, working at the SMART Alabama metal stamping plant was not a walk in the park, either.
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Children should not be allowed to work with dangerous equipment and the best illustration for this is the death of a 14-year-old boy in July 2015 at the Park Family Farm: the child was crushed by a hydraulic lift of a New Holland LS170 skid-steer loader. His body was found pinned underneath the lift and a bale of hay with the equipment's engine still running.
Even when jobs are not so traumatic, they can still be excessive and time consuming, impacting teen workers' health and school performance. Thus, Chipotle, an American chain of fast casual restaurants, was fined $1.4 million over an estimated 13,000 child labor violations in Massachusetts in 2020. The authorities found that the chain regularly let dozens of 16- and 17-year-old employees work more than nine hours per day and more than 48 hours per week.
"Why does it happen? I think companies like Hyundai in Alabama are confident that the folks entrusted to enforce these laws will look the other way," says Morrison. "I've written about how the Alabama Attorney General knew about the child labor situation long before the Reuters report, and yet from all available information, it seems he would have been just as happy to have let that stay quiet. To this day neither he nor his office has even released a statement on the matter."
Furthermore, US federal and state departments of labor have a "tiny number" of inspectors who are supposed to visit work sites and ensure compliance with employment laws, as Professor Gordon Lafer, co-director of the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon, told Sputnik in October. "Over the decades, (…) the number of inspectors has been cut, so most employers never worry about being inspected," admitted Lafer, who was a senior policy advisor for the House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and Labor in 2009-2010.
"And that is only for illegal child labor," continued Morrison. "There is plenty of child labor that is legal, and as Sarah Lazare has reported in the American Prospect - anti-worker organizations like the National Federation of Independent Businesses (…) are working to loosen child labor laws even further, ostensibly due to the 'labor shortage.'"
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Money Talks

Big Business has no scruples about exploiting children for the sake of profit, according to the unionist.

"Why pay an adult (who also presumably is going to be more assertive, expect some amount of reciprocal respect, have some rudimentary knowledge of what is appropriate and what's not) a full wage when you can get a similar work product for a reduced rate? And you can even say you're doing them a favor by giving them 'experience!'" he noted.

US federal law is indirectly encouraging employers to hire children by legalizing a "youth minimum wage" of $4.25 per hour for workers under 20 for their first three consecutive months. For comparison's sake, the federal minimum wage is $7.25.
In addition to that, "one of the things that makes these big corporations like Hyundai feel it's possible is fissuring in the workforce," explained Morrison.

"They didn't 'technically' employ these children after all," he said. "It was their supplier. And even then, SL Alabama didn't 'technically' employ them either. It was some temp agency. So you find these people that are willing to break the law for you and you look the other way as you see a 12-year-old in the plant. 'Not my problem, I didn't hire her,' right? That's a big thing. And when these children are undocumented, it makes it even less likely that others will report what is going on for fear of making the child's life and their families' even worse."

Morrison lamented the fact that, actually, corporations hold too much political power, while workers have too little. Children remain the least protected workforce, being either uneducated about their workplace rights, or originating from undocumented immigrant families who agree to keep the abuse on the hush so as to not be deported from the country.
Despite bolstering its human rights rhetoric, the US is routinely failing its most vulnerable ones.
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