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Why is there a push for the return of child labor in the U.S.?

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Across the U.S., children as young as 13 are being employed in the logging industry. They are working as roofers, packaging cereal and cleaning meatpacking plants. Many of these kids are migrants who came into the U.S. without their parents and were driven to work out of desperation.

There is a national push to make it easier for children to work. Ten states have rolled back child labor laws recently, with a federal bill to allow teens to work in one of the most dangerous industries.

Laws are being passed to extend the working hours for children, eliminate work permit requirements, and lower the minimum age to work in certain risky industries.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many children in the United States worked in factories, mines, and other hazardous industries. They often labored long hours in dangerous conditions, with little or no access to education or proper medical care. Children were often paid low wages, which made it nearly impossible for them to break out of poverty.

As public awareness of the harms of child labor grew, labor unions, social reformers, and child welfare organizations began to push for legal protections for children in the workplace. In response, states began passing laws to limit the hours that children could work, and to prohibit them from working in certain hazardous occupations. These efforts eventually culminated in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established federal regulations on child labor and set minimum wage and overtime pay requirements for workers.

Now a Florida-based think tank and its lobbying arm, the Opportunity Solutions Project is working to put children back to work. The FGA frames its child worker bills as part of a larger debate surrounding parental rights, including in education and childcare. But the state-by-state campaigns, the group’s leader said, help the FGA create openings to deconstruct larger government regulations.

And the FGA is making progress. In a tight labor market where finding adults to perform low skill labor for low wages becomes difficult, children are being recruited to fill the void in the labor force.

The Labor Department has seen a 69 percent increase in minors employed in violation of federal law since 2018, officials reported. Between 2018 and 2022, federal regulators opened cases for 4,144 child labor violations covering 15,462 youth workers, according to federal data.

Some Republican lawmakers have supported putting children to work as a way for them to build character, learn about money management and develop a solid work ethic. Employers may argue that relaxing child labor laws would allow for more flexibility in their hiring practices and will benefit the economy.

However, the repeal of child labor laws will lead to an increase in workplace injuries and fatalities among children, as well as limit their access to education and other opportunities that are critical to their future success.

Child labor laws in the United States are enforced at both the federal and state levels and are designed to protect children from dangerous and exploitative work conditions that could harm their health, education, and overall development.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is a federal law that establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, and other employment standards for workers, including children. The law sets age restrictions on the types of work that children can perform and restricts the number of hours they can work during school hours and non-school hours.


Reid Maki, Coordinator, Child Labor Coalition & Director, Child Labor Advocacy,
National Consumers League

"The Source" is a live call-in program airing Mondays through Thursdays from 12-1 p.m. Leave a message before the program at (210) 615-8982. During the live show, call 833-877-8255, email thesource@tpr.org or tweet@TPRSource.

*This interview will be recorded on Tuesday May 2.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi