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U.S. and World Politics

Child Labor is Back with a Vengeance!

By Eve Ottenberg

Child labor is back. That’s because rich corporations and their political parasites want it back. What better way, they doubtless imagine, for penniless, unaccompanied migrant children to spend their time than performing dangerous tasks in slaughterhouses or moiling [grueling work] with toxic cleansers in factories? What else are these kids going to do with their time? Go to school? Not likely, if our oligarchs have it their way. Corporate billionaires need workers, especially post-Great Resignation, when millions of employees, after remembering thanks to COVID that life is short, basically said “You can take this lousy job and shove it.” As a result, it’s a tight labor market, despite the Federal Reserve’s best efforts to boost unemployment, to wit, Fed chairman Jerome Powell’s interest rate increases, his volley in the class war that backfired, potentially taking down the banks (poetic justice that could ruin us all.) And a tight labor market means higher wages. Our corporate bigwigs don’t like that at all, and thus eye child workers all the more eagerly, because they can pay them peanuts.

Also jumping on the tawdry child labor bandwagon are states like Minnesota and Iowa. There, GOP legislators want exceptions to child labor regulations, so kids can work longer hours and to “protect employers from liabilities due to sickness or accidents,” per the proposed bills’ language, as RT reported February 24. Washington even lends a hand—with a new rule in January, lowering the age of professional truck drivers from 21 to 18. So now, according to CNN January 19, 18-year-olds can drive semi-trucks across state lines, because “the U.S. government is setting up an apprenticeship program for young truckers.” This will lead to many more collisions and other potentially lethal events, but the feds don’t care—like Powell, they see a class war to win for the billionaires, so road safety? A thing of the past, innit?

If you ask cui bono? [“to whom is it a benefit?”], the answer isn’t these luckless teenagers. It’s the industry, which needs roughly 80,000 more drivers. Currently 49 states and Washington, D.C. license people under 21—but not to cross state lines. So, this program seems like fixing a mere technicality, right? Wrong. What’s never mentioned is raising truckers’ wages. That would solve the staffing shortage tout de suite. [immediately] But the American Trucking Association is so shy about mentioning this, it hasn’t murmured a peep, and so our brave government officials, taking their cue from industry’s reticence, tiptoe around it too.

The Truck Safety Coalition has vociferously criticized moves to have kids haul semis across state lines, going back to September 2020, CNN reports. That’s when the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration first proposed a pilot program to allow people 18 years and older to do interstate truck driving; but it wasn’t implemented until November 2022. Youthful truckers boast an extremely high accident rate, so you’ll be relieved to know these apprentices won’t be permitted to drive trucks carrying toxic materials, thus decreasing the chances for innumerable mini-East Palestine catastrophes across the country.

“We’d like to see Secretary Buttigieg demonstrate a genuine commitment to safety and publicly commit to terminating the program…after the first fatality or serious injury,” said Truck Safety Coalition executive director Zach Cahalan to CNN. Good luck with that, Zach. To judge from Buttigieg’s delayed and reserved reaction to the recent train derailment fiasco and the earlier Southwest Airlines flight cancellation mess, he ain’t too concerned about anybody other than the big companies he supposedly regulates. Even though one University of Michigan study showed “a 500 percent increase in injury crashes for truck drivers younger than 21 compared to truck drivers overall.”

So, child labor is getting noticed, partly because, as NBC reported February 21, at a Nebraska meat-packing plant, “a sanitation company used migrant children in a dangerous job cleaning equipment.” The labor department is investigating the company, Packer Sanitation Services, Inc. One investigator told NBC that the company brazenly impeded her work. NBC reported that these kids could not have been mistaken for adults, and that investigators say the company employed one hundred children as young as 13. Earlier, in December, after the labor department found 50 children working for PSSI, the firm signed a consent decree saying it would abide by child labor laws. Nice of PSSI to concede that; a little noblesse oblige [the inferred responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged] to the country of laws, not men, is always welcome. Incidentally, PSSI is owned by the stupendously rich investment management company Blackstone (net worth over $56 billion), according to NBC February 23. The labor department cited PSSI in February for systemic “child labor violations that indicated ‘a corporate-wide failure’ stretching across 13 locations in eight states.”

Then the New York Times on February 25 and the Washington Post on March 3 reported on the exploitation of migrant child labor. The Times found lots of kids in hazardous jobs, in clear violation of child labor laws. “This shadow work force extends across industries in every state…Twelve-year-old roofers in Florida and Tennessee. Underage slaughterhouse workers in Delaware, Mississippi and North Carolina. Children sawing planks of wood on overnight shifts in South Dakota.” The golden age of all children learning in free public schools in the U.S. is over.

Right on cue, as all this rotten news hit the fan, Arkansas GOP governor Sarah Sanders signed a new law watering down child labor protections, the Washington Post reported March 8. “The law eliminates requirements for the state to verify the age of children younger than 16 before they can take a job.” So, I guess a very large five-year-old could weld on the local assembly-line. But seriously, the clear result of this will be younger teenagers, even pre-teens working—presumably after school, ho, ho—because their bosses know no one will check their age.

Sanders called age verification “burdensome and obsolete.” How ’bout them apples? A labor law intended to end abuse of children for reasons of humanity and basic morality is, to this governor, merely some nuisance in the way of profit. It’s hard to avoid concluding that if they could, Republicans would gut ALL child labor laws. Then we’d be back to the fun times of the nineteenth century, with children working in coal mines for pennies—a calamity which, of course, today afflicts many of what these MAGA Republicans regard as “shithole countries.” Well, for us Americans, it’s welcome to the club, I guess, if the GOP has its way.

The Biden administration “announced a wide crackdown on the labor exploitation of migrant children around the United States,” the Times reported February 27. We’ll see if the Biden team is serious about this, or if this proclamation was just a flash in the pan to grab a headline. A real crimp on any worker abuse upsets the business applecart, to say nothing of inflaming the free-market fanatics in the GOP who regard any labor law as bad news. Corporations want these child workers—after all, they come dirt cheap. Will Biden really push back against this? How much? If the past is prologue, we may be in for some really gloomy music.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Hope Deferred.

CounterPunch, March 17, 2023

https://www.counterpunch.org/2023/03/17/child-labor-is-back-with-a-vengeance/