America’s social studies textbooks urgently need an update — on child labor. Our textbooks, ever since the middle of the 20th century, have been applauding the reform movement that gradually put an end to the child-labor horrors that ran widespread throughout the early Industrial Age. Now those horrors, here in the 21st century, are reappearing.
The number of kids employed in direct violation of existing child labor laws, analysts at the Economic Policy Institute this past March reported, has soared 283 percent since 2015 — and 37 percent in just the last year alone. Last week brought the alarming news that three Kentucky-based McDonald’s franchises had kids as young as 10 working at 62 stores in four different states. Some of these under-working age children were working as late as 2 a.m.
Lawmakers at the state level, meanwhile, are moving to weaken — and even eliminate — existing limits on when and where kids can be working. One bill in Iowa introduced earlier this year, EPI researchers note, would let kids “as young as 14” labor in workplaces ranging from meat coolers to industrial laundries. In Arkansas, legislation recently signed into law ends the requirement that the state “verify the age of children younger than 16 before they can take a job.”
How do cheerleaders for erasing protections for kids justify their anti-child-labor-law offensive? Jobs for the youngest among us, they argue, build character.
“We have sheltered our kids so much they’ve forgotten how to do one of the things we’re all training them to do,” says Dan Zumbach, a Republican state senator in Iowa, “and that’s how to work.”
The real reason? Child labor is cheap labor. And business is business. Child labor adds to the pool of vulnerable workers to exploit at a time when worker demands for higher wages and better working conditions are rising and strike activity has increased. Who’s more vulnerable than children?
—Sam Pizzigati, writing in Counterpunch. tinyurl.com/pizzigati