A person harvesting carrots.

The Ongoing Problem of Child Labor Abuse

A 13-year-old can’t attend school because he works 72 hours a week on an egg farm. One middle school girl works overnight shifts on an assembly line. And less than 24 hours after arriving in the country, a 12-year-old boy is roofing houses (NPR). These aren’t stories from Industrial Revolution tenements or tales from the sweatshops of a far-off country. Child labor is how U.S. companies like Cheerios, Cheetos, and Ford operate. A New York Times investigation found immigrant children forced to work dangerous, labor-intensive jobs made for adults in all 50 states. Child labor violations aren’t an accident or oversight. Lawmakers are introducing and passing bills weakening child labor protections across the country (EPI). Major U.S. corporations, industry lobbying grounds, Republican lawmakers, and the Biden administration are all actively exploiting child workers to secure votes and corporate profits. 

In February, journalist Hannah Dreier published a groundbreaking story exposing how the country’s “new economy of exploitation” depends on unaccompanied migrant children, largely from Central America. 


• Support the Child Labor Center and the Economic Policy Institute in the fight against child labor.

• Support Movimiento Cosecha’s work to transform an unjust immigration system and take action to support migrant children.

• Consider: what was your day-to-day life like when you were 12? What would it have been like if you had to work a full-time job in addition to going to school? What if you were also cut off from your family in a new country? Would you feel that you were treated fairly by the government and citizens of your new country? How would your life be different today? 

Eager to avoid news stories about kids in cages, the Biden administration significantly loosened child sponsorship vetting requirements to clear out shelters. Some in the agency worry that the push for quick releases has caused trafficking to rise since most migrant children are now sent to relatives, acquaintances, and even strangers, instead of their parents.

Many sponsors treat the minors in their care as a business opportunity, forcing them to work long hours and sometimes neglecting to enroll them in school. Approximately two-thirds of children are forced to work full-time as part of a sponsorship program designed and executed by the Biden administration. They package General Mills cereal, stitch J. Crew shirts, and bake Walmart dinner rolls (NYTimes). After the story broke, the Biden administration claimed to be “shocked” at its findings, which Dreier finds hard to believe. “I found these children working in all 50 states. They were not hard to find,” she said. “And so I have wondered, could it really be that nobody had any clue that this was happening?” (NPR).

So many children cross the border alone because only unaccompanied children can stay in the U.S. and file for asylum (DHS). This U.S. policy has forced many parents to make the tough decision to send their children across the border without them, which will most likely increase with the reinstatement of Title 8 and even more restrictive measures (N.Y. TimesCNN). Unaccompanied minors are put into the sponsorship system, which often leads to coerced labor benefitting some of the wealthiest U.S. corporations.

Child labor isn’t just a problem for immigrant children. This month, restaurant and arcade chain Dave & Buster’s agreed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for meal break and child labor violations in Massachusetts (CBS Boston). A Wisconsin company employed dozens of children as young as 13 to clean the “back saws, brisket saws and head splitters” of slaughterhouses. Some children suffered chemical burns while working overnight shifts at processing facilities owned by firms like JBS, Cargill, and Tyson Foods (The Guardian).

The number of children employed in violation of existing federal laws reached a record high of 3,800 last year. That’s 283% more than in 2015. Experts believe this is just a fraction of the actual number of child labor law violations since the Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division is one of the “least funded government agencies” (EPIPBS). There is no limit on the hours 12-year-olds can work full-time in the fields thanks to legislation written during Jim Crow (NPR). 

In the last two years, almost a dozen states have introduced bills or passed laws to weaken state child labor protections. This legislation is promoted by the most powerful industry associations in the nation: the Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association, and the National Federation of Independent Business (EPI). Expanding child labor benefits business owners trying to reduce the cost of labor. And it’s low household wages that force working-class minors into the workforce in the first place. If adult family members earned a living wage, or if the provision of basic needs like food, shelter, and clothing weren’t tied to your job, there would be no pressure for children to work full-time jobs. 

Addressing child labor means reckoning with the fact that the United States has always depended on it. The wealth of the United States was created through child labor during slavery, industrialization, and Jim Crow. Ruling class wealth is still created through child labor today, within and outside this country. 

“Photographs of child labor in foreign countries are far more common than those made in the U.S., which leaves the impression that child labor is someone else’s problem, not ours. Perhaps it’s too hard for Americans to look at this domestic issue square in the eyes,” writes the University of Maryland’s Beth Saunders (The Conversation). 


• Child labor violations are increasing to record levels as states loosen legal restrictions. 

• A report found immigrant children as young as 12 working dangerous full-time jobs in all 50 states. 

• Child labor abuse violates children’s rights in order to increase profits for business owners.

2400 1600 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

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