Recent Child Labor Violations Highlight Need for Critical Labor Reforms


On July 14, 2023, Devan Tomas Perez, a 16-year-old boy from Guatemala, was killed while working night shifts in sanitation at Marjac, a poultry processing plant in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Devan’s death occurs afterDeath of two other 16-year-old boys doing dangerous work this summer in the United States. On June 29, Michael Schuls died while working at a Wisconsin sawmill, and on June 8, Will Hampton died from injuries sustained while working at a landfill. These three deaths occurred in the wake of massive investigative efforts carried out over the past several months since BNC, the New York TimesAnd 60 minutes on U.S. children working in industries such as protein processing, with high rates of injuries, illnesses and deaths.

Many of these stories have focused on immigration and the family status of these children as unaccompanied minors from Central and South America, placing the blame squarely on employers. Instead, parents were arrested and subjected to deportation proceedings, and young adults who gave false information about their ages to the press and border authorities were encountered. vindictive hit plays. Significant collateral consequences could follow in their immigration case, ruining not only their lives but those of other children and young adults fleeing poverty and violence.

But Schuls and Hampton were white children, American citizens. Their deaths illustrate that child labor violations are endemic and do not only affect immigrant, indigenous, black and brown communities. Thus, recent media attention to child labor highlights the need to reform both U.S. immigration laws and federal child labor laws. It seems little has changed since the Industrial Revolution, when labor activists like Mother Jones were the first to sound the alarm about the exploitation of child labor.

Child Labor Law

The history of labor reforms in the United States at the turn of the 20th century was deeply tied to the exploitation of child labor. During this time, child labor was common and children often worked long days in incredibly dangerous conditions. Perhaps the most famous child laborers were the boy breakers: young boys who worked in the mines and separated coal from slate and dirt by hand. Children also worked in factories, as chimney sweeps and as servants.

Some of the country’s first labor laws sought to regulate child labor, particularly in hazardous industries. In 1842, Massachusetts passed the nation’s first-ever child labor law, prohibiting children under the age of 12 from working in factories. By 1850, all New England states had followed Massachusetts’ lead in setting the minimum legal working age for children, varying from 9 to 14 years. In 1916, the Keating-Owen Act, the first federal law regulating child labor, was passed. However, this law only regulated child labor used in certain businesses (factories, workshops, canneries, mines, and quarries) as well as businesses engaged in interstate commerce. That means nearly 2 million additional children working in other types of businesses, including home-based businesses and farms, were not covered by the law. Far fewer than 10% of children were actually covered. The Keating-Owens Act was struck down by the Supreme Court two years later, and it was not until the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938 that a federal child labor law was established. was confirmed by the court. Although the FLSA was a major step forward in labor reform, establishing, among other things, federal minimum wage and overtime requirements, the delineation of what is and is not permitted for children remains confused and vague.

Under the FLSA, there are two categories of child labor: agricultural and non-agricultural. For agricultural jobs, children as young as 10 years old are allowed to work if employers submit an application to the Secretary of Labor. Children under the age of 12 can also work in agriculture with the consent of their parents or guardians, without any minimum wage requirements. Outside of agricultural jobs, the FLSA sets a minimum working age of 16. However, corresponding FLSA regulations allow children as young as 14 to work in 15 occupational categories ranging from office work to lifeguarding (but only if you’re 15) to cooking to provided that cooking is not done during an open flame. The list goes on.

So when you try to figure out what jobs 14- and 15-year-olds can legally do, you’re faced with a convoluted and unclear set of rules.

The United States Department of Labor provides “Toolbox for young workers” but these documents are just as confusing as the laws. For example, a toolkit bookmark for young workers attempts to provide a succinct explanation of the non-agricultural jobs that 14 and 15 year olds can do by stating: “work in specific non-hazardous jobs in non-manufacturing industries under certain conditions.” To determine what these “non-hazardous jobs in non-manufacturing industries” are, children and their families can turn to DOL Youth Employment Guidewhich States:

This language is difficult to access for young people aged 14 and 15, not to mention unaccompanied minors and people with low literacy skills, even if it is translated into Spanish and other languages.

Remedies for Child Labor Violations

Even though the three 16-year-olds who tragically lost their lives this summer were banned from doing the specific type of work they were doing, they were not prohibited to work in these dangerous industries. In this sense, the DOL guidance can be misleading; While the DOL’s youth employment guide implies that 16-year-olds like Devan are generally not allowed to work in the meat processing industry, looking at the regulations there is no There is no clear ban on people under 18. 7 job categories Children ages 16 and 17 are prohibited from working in meat processing facilities, including the job Devan was doing the night he died: cleaning equipment. Instead of listing exceptions, child labor regulations should categorically prohibit children under the age of 18 from working in these industries. Until then, children, families, and employers will remain confused about what jobs these children can or cannot do, and in turn, our nation’s children, regardless of their status, will continue to be harmed and You are.

Fortunately, there are remedies for child labor violations. These violations may be reported to the Wage and Hour Division, which can then assess back wages owed to minors and impose civil monetary penalties against businesses that violate child labor laws. For immigrant workers and children, there are also limited immigration protections. Employment agencies may provide U visa certifications to victims of certain workplace crimes, provided there is an underlying law that the agency enforces that was also violated and the worker cooperates with the investigation. Additionally, trafficked workers, including children, may be able to obtain a T visa from employment agencies providing T visa certification. Additionally, in January 2023, the Department of Homeland Security announced a streamlined process for immigrant workers to obtain work-based deferred action, temporary status for immigrant workers involved in a local, state, or federal labor investigation or dispute. Deferred action protects immigrant workers from retaliation in the form of immigration enforcement and provides them with work authorization, allowing them to benefit from the full range of whistleblower protections, including job reinstatement , salary arrears and advance payments. Immigration practitioners who come into contact with immigrant workers and children should seek these forms of relief.

Closely linked labor and immigration movements

The FLSA is now 85 years old. At the time of its passage, members of Congress in the Jim Crow South ensured that jobs where black, brown, and immigrant workers were concentrated were exempt from its protections. To date, agricultural workers are exempt from the obligation to work overtime. Exceptions to child labor have also led to the exploitation of poor children, children of immigrants, and children of color in these industries. So, labor advocates calling for changes to the FLSA, including removing overtime exemptions, must also push for these necessary child labor reforms. And immigrant advocates who are calling for changes to our nation’s immigration laws, particularly for unaccompanied minors, should also join the union fight.

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