Slate: Child Labor Has Made a Comeback

A gruesome case at meatpacking plants is but one example.


The latest child labor case to make headlines is shocking even if you’re jaded about what companies are capable of when it comes to their workers. Dozens of teenagers—including children as young as 13—allegedly worked overnight shifts cleaning dangerous equipment in Minnesota and Nebraska meatpacking plants.

The teens worked for Packers Sanitation Services, which was sued by the U.S. Department of Labor last week. Packers Sanitation is not a household name, but it’s an enormous corporation providing janitorial services for food companies that are nationally known; in this case, for meat industry powerhouses Turkey Valley Farms and JBS USA.

Owned by a succession of private equity firms (currently Blackstone), Packers Sanitation has a terrible workplace safety record; a 2017 study by the National Employment Law Project found that the company had the 14th-highest number of severe injury reports nationwide among 14,000 companies tracked by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Since 2018, OSHA has investigated at least four amputations and three fatalities among Packers Sanitation employees, including a decapitation. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the company’s 2015 amputation rate (almost 10 dismemberments per 10,000 workers) was almost five times higher than for U.S. manufacturing workers overall. In short, this isn’t scooping ice cream at the neighborhood shop or lifeguarding at the town pool.

The court pleadings are heartbreaking. In one example, a 14-year-old worked through the night “cleaning machines ‘used to cut meat’ while attending Walnut Middle School.” A report cited in the lawsuit detailed this child “falling asleep in class and missing class as a result and suffering injuries from chemical burns.”

A judge quickly issued an injunction requiring the company to stop using “oppressive child labor.” Meanwhile, Packers Sanitation’s PR team had the gall to blame the victims: “While rogue individuals could of course seek to engage in fraud or identity theft, we are confident in our company’s strict compliance policies.” Rogue 13-year-olds, indeed.

The case may seem like a throwback to another era, or an isolated incident of no broader consequence. But exploitative child labor has been with us all along, and it may be getting worse. The Packers case is a warning, revealing broad trends about how little our country values children and labor.

Just this summer, news broke that a Hyundai subsidiary in Alabama employed three children (between 12 and 15 years old) to work at a metal stamping plant, dangerous labor prohibited for minors.

Meanwhile, fast-food employers have committed a raft of child labor violations, making teenagers work excessive hours that violate limits protecting children’s health and education.

Chipotle has paid more than $9 million based on thousands of child labor violations in New Jersey and Massachusetts. The Massachusetts attorney general’s office has also found extensive violations at Burger KingDunkin’Wendy’s, and Qdoba.

In my prior job leading the New York attorney general’s labor bureau, our team brought criminal charges in 2014 against a small-town restaurant where a 17-year-old’s arm was severed when he was assigned to clean hazardous machinery prohibited for minors. (The owner eventually pleaded guilty.) In an even more tragic case, our lawyers prosecuted the employer of a 14-year-old who was crushed to death while using a (prohibited for children) hydraulic lift while working on a farm in upstate New York. (Another guilty plea.)

It shouldn’t be necessary to state this, but: Abusive child labor is not good for kids. Excessive hours can adversely impact school performance, harming students’ grades and causing behavior problems. Children are more susceptible to workplace injuries; a 2015 Massachusetts survey found that teens had 42 percent more emergency room visits compared with workers age 25 and older. And with virtually no labor education in our schools, young workers know little to nothing about their workplace rights.

Federal law actually incentivizes the hiring of children by allowing employers to pay workers under 20 a lower “youth minimum wage” of $4.25 per hour for their first 90 days. (The federal minimum wage is $7.25.) Some state laws also allow lower minimums for young workers; in Virginia, for example, there’s no state minimum wage at all for workers under 16.

There are also federal and state carve-outs for agriculture; for example, federal law allows kids as young as 12, with parental consent, to work outside of school hours, with no other limits on their work schedules whatsoever. This isn’t like an autumn trip to the apple orchard; it’s grueling, punishing work, often with blazing heat and potential pesticide exposure.

Amid all this, there’s been pressure of late from conservatives to put fewer guardrails on child labor. Newt Gingrich suggested that students in failing schools should do the work of janitors; the Trump administration proposed a rule (ultimately withdrawn) to allow 16- and 17-year-olds working in nursing homes to operate power-operated patient lifts alone, at great risk of injury. Meanwhile, business interests have pushed proposals to weaken child labor laws, sometimes successfully, in New Jersey, Ohio, and Wisconsin. These advocates for more child labor implicitly reveal what they really think of labor and of children: not much.

Read the full article at Slate.

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