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Child labor remains a problem in the United States

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In September, Human Rights Watch (HRW) assigned a letter grade to each US state offering a child rights assessment. He measured them against the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the 1989 international concordat that the United States is the only member country not to ratify. No state received an “A” or “B”. Only New Jersey, Ohio, Iowa and Minnesota received “C’s”. Twenty received an “F”. In addition to juvenile justice standards, corporal punishment and child marriage, many states’ scores have suffered due to the prevalence of child labor.

US Labor Secretary Marty Walsh has repeatedly condemned child labor internationally, saying it is “a denial of basic human rights in the workplace and is unacceptable”. In June 2022, the Department of State issued a statement supporting the “World Day Against Child Labor”. Neither the Department of Labor nor the state has mentioned the situation of child domestic labor in the United States, which is one of the reasons why non-governmental organizations like HRW monitor the practice and point the finger American hypocrisy on the issue. But child labor persisted in the United States as a result of the Depression-era debate and compromise that produced the regulatory framework for managing child laborers.

Children between the ages of 10 and 15 made up as much as 40% of the workforce according to the 1880 census. But in the early 20th century, public opinion began to turn against child labor. Photographs by sociologist Lewis Hine provided provocative images of young children working in harsh conditions.

Advocates of the practice have long argued that the work is good for children. But Hine disagreed, arguing that “the purpose of employing children is not to train them, but to derive high profits from their work”. Following the formation of the National Committee on Child Labor (NCLC) in 1904, the first federal child labor bills were introduced in Congress in 1906. Sen. Albert Beveridge (R-Ind.) and Rep. Herbert Parsons (RN.Y.) introduced identical bills to “prevent the employment of children in factories and mines”. That same day, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.) introduced a bill to ban interstate commerce in child-produced goods. The bills went to committee, but no further action was taken once it was clear they lacked the support of President Theodore Roosevelt.

After pressure from the NCLC and women reformers like Florence Kelly at the National Consumers League — who created a “white label campaign,” identifying products made under poor working conditions, including through the use of child labor — Congress passed the Keating-Owen Act in 1916. The new legislation mimicked Lodge’s original bill, prohibiting interstate commerce in child-produced goods. President Woodrow Wilson had largely ignored the issue, but in the face of a rejuvenated challenge from the GOP, he saw it as a good way to woo the growing number of female voters and signed the bill into law. But in Hammer versus Dagenhart (1918), the Supreme Court declared Keating-Owen unconstitutional following a challenge by North Carolina factory owner Ronald Dagenhart. Congress responded by implementing a 10% tax on companies that used child labor, but the court also struck it down, considering it a “disguised penalty” in Bailey v Drexel Furniture Co. (1922).

Another obstacle for child labor abolitionists was that some children wanted to keep their jobs. For example, newsboys who unionized to demand better wages and conditions wanted to continue to supplement the wages of their working-class relatives. Parental poverty provided a practical argument against regulation, but the reformers remained focused on the moral issue. They supported mandatory school laws at the state level to curb child labor on the sly; it was easier to force the children to do something else than to forbid their employment directly.

The compromises were insufficient for the radical working-class children whose bold critiques of child labor emerge from the archives. For example, in 1923, 11-year-old Leo Granoff appeared in Manhattan Juvenile Court charged with juvenile delinquency because of his membership in a Communist organization, the Junior Chapter of the Young Workers’ League. He asked the judge, “Why don’t you care about the children in the factories who have to work all night? Granoff claimed that the courts were “not supervising the children,” as he put it.

Congress had decided to restrict child labor twice, and twice the unelected court had pushed them back at the behest of big business — a dynamic that made communism more appealing to some young people. In 1925, 14-year-old Morris Spector, the New York organizer of the Communist children’s group Young Pioneers of America, spoke at a meeting in Madison Square Garden. He explained that he hoped for a revolution to see “a time when the blood and bones of little children will no longer be minted into yellow gold to feed the greedy”.

In response to court setbacks, Congress passed a constitutional amendment to regulate child labor in June 1924, but only five states ratified it by the 1920s. President Franklin D. Roosevelt supported the amendment and his election reinvigorated the cause. During his first year in office in 1933, 14 more states ratified the amendment. That year, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act, part of which allowed industries to establish codes restricting child labor, but the Supreme Court ruled it an “unconstitutional delegation of legislative power” by Schechter Poultry Corp. vs. United States (1935).

During his 1936 re-election campaign, Roosevelt pledged to “reduce overlong hours, raise starvation wages, end child labor”. With 12 more states needed to amend the constitution, in January 1937 he wrote to the governors and governors-elect of the remaining 19 states arguing that child labor should be “finally abolished”. The following month, he confirmed by telegraph to New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia that he remained committed to amending the Constitution to “protect the rights of children”. Meanwhile, piecemeal reforms succeeded: the Walsh-Healy Act of 1936 prohibited the federal government from buying products made by children, and the Sugar Act of 1937 prevented farmers from receiving benefits if they did not meet the minimum age requirement.

With limited progress on the constitutional amendment, child labor restrictions were incorporated into broader New Deal labor changes that were contested and blocked in Congress. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that emerged in 1938 from a divided Congress on the issue, allowing the Secretary of Labor to impose minimum wages and maximum hours based on age, but it exempted the agriculture, transportation and local retail. As a result, when the FLSA was enacted, it restricted predominantly white child labor in northeast industry, but left predominantly non-white agricultural child labor in the west and south unchecked. This compromise reflected the power of senior Southern legislators in Congress – who had disproportionate influence due to their seniority thanks to the one-party nature of the South.

The exemptions in the FLSA still apply today, so child labor remains the status quo in agriculture where 10-year-olds can work part-time and 12-year-olds can work full-time. The children come primarily from immigrant and non-white backgrounds — and their work remains exempt from the federal ban on children working in “hazardous” occupations. Child agricultural workers are exposed to dangerous machinery, extreme heat and pesticides; when the EPA determines the safety of substances, it does not take into account the presence of children and the lower tolerances of smaller bodies. An estimated 100,000 child farmworkers are injured on the job each year, and children account for 20% of agricultural fatalities: a child dies every three days in American agriculture, according to the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety.

About a quarter of the domestic production of the United States is picked by an army of children who numbered around 500,000 in 2021. As the young Morris Spector said in 1925, “the blood and bones of little children” are always transformed into profits as modern agribusiness exploits a 1938 Compromise rooted in the regional and racial inequalities of the New Deal reforms. Child labor remains intrinsic to the US economy, and officials are hypocritical when condemning it abroad.