Moneybox

Child Labor Has Made a Comeback

A gruesome case at meatpacking plants is but one example.

A contemporary child mopping is superimposed over a historic black and white photo of a food processing factory.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by industryview/iStock/Getty Images Plus and lisafx/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

The latest child labor case to make headlines is shocking even if you’re jaded about what companies are capable of when it comes to their workers. Dozens of teenagers—including children as young as 13—allegedly worked overnight shifts cleaning dangerous equipment in Minnesota and Nebraska meatpacking plants.

The teens worked for Packers Sanitation Services, which was sued by the U.S. Department of Labor last week. Packers Sanitation is not a household name, but it’s an enormous corporation providing janitorial services for food companies that are nationally known; in this case, for meat industry powerhouses Turkey Valley Farms and JBS USA.

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Owned by a succession of private equity firms (currently Blackstone), Packers Sanitation has a terrible workplace safety record; a 2017 study by the National Employment Law Project found that the company had the 14th-highest number of severe injury reports nationwide among 14,000 companies tracked by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Since 2018, OSHA has investigated at least four amputations and three fatalities among Packers Sanitation employees, including a decapitation. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the company’s 2015 amputation rate (almost 10 dismemberments per 10,000 workers) was almost five times higher than for U.S. manufacturing workers overall. In short, this isn’t scooping ice cream at the neighborhood shop or lifeguarding at the town pool.

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The court pleadings are heartbreaking. In one example, a 14-year-old worked through the night “cleaning machines ‘used to cut meat’ while attending Walnut Middle School.” A report cited in the lawsuit detailed this child “falling asleep in class and missing class as a result and suffering injuries from chemical burns.”

A judge quickly issued an injunction requiring the company to stop using “oppressive child labor.” Meanwhile, Packers Sanitation’s PR team had the gall to blame the victims: “While rogue individuals could of course seek to engage in fraud or identity theft, we are confident in our company’s strict compliance policies.” Rogue 13-year-olds, indeed.

The case may seem like a throwback to another era, or an isolated incident of no broader consequence. But exploitative child labor has been with us all along, and it may be getting worse. The Packers case is a warning, revealing broad trends about how little our country values children and labor.

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Just this summer, news broke that a Hyundai subsidiary in Alabama employed three children (between 12 and 15 years old) to work at a metal stamping plant, dangerous labor prohibited for minors.

Meanwhile, fast-food employers have committed a raft of child labor violations, making teenagers work excessive hours that violate limits protecting children’s health and education.
Chipotle has paid more than $9 million based on thousands of child labor violations in New Jersey and Massachusetts. The Massachusetts attorney general’s office has also found extensive violations at Burger King, Dunkin’, Wendy’s, and Qdoba.

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In my prior job leading the New York attorney general’s labor bureau, our team brought criminal charges in 2014 against a small-town restaurant where a 17-year-old’s arm was severed when he was assigned to clean hazardous machinery prohibited for minors. (The owner eventually pleaded guilty.) In an even more tragic case, our lawyers prosecuted the employer of a 14-year-old who was crushed to death while using a (prohibited for children) hydraulic lift while working on a farm in upstate New York. (Another guilty plea.)

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It shouldn’t be necessary to state this, but: Abusive child labor is not good for kids. Excessive hours can adversely impact school performance, harming students’ grades and causing behavior problems. Children are more susceptible to workplace injuries; a 2015 Massachusetts survey found that teens had 42 percent more emergency room visits compared with workers age 25 and older. And with virtually no labor education in our schools, young workers know little to nothing about their workplace rights.

Federal law actually incentivizes the hiring of children by allowing employers to pay workers under 20 a lower “youth minimum wage” of $4.25 per hour for their first 90 days. (The federal minimum wage is $7.25.) Some state laws also allow lower minimums for young workers; in Virginia, for example, there’s no state minimum wage at all for workers under 16.

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There are also federal and state carve-outs for agriculture; for example, federal law allows kids as young as 12, with parental consent, to work outside of school hours, with no other limits on their work schedules whatsoever. This isn’t like an autumn trip to the apple orchard; it’s grueling, punishing work, often with blazing heat and potential pesticide exposure.

Amid all this, there’s been pressure of late from conservatives to put fewer guardrails on child labor. Newt Gingrich suggested that students in failing schools should do the work of janitors; the Trump administration proposed a rule (ultimately withdrawn) to allow 16- and 17-year-olds working in nursing homes to operate power-operated patient lifts alone, at great risk of injury. Meanwhile, business interests have pushed proposals to weaken child labor laws, sometimes successfully, in New Jersey, Ohio, and Wisconsin. These advocates for more child labor implicitly reveal what they really think of labor and of children: not much.

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Decades-long trends created the conditions in which the recent child labor cases could occur. How might things have been different if the law made it easier for people to form a union? If Packers Sanitation itself were unionized, with union stewards keeping an eye on the shop floor? (It’s not. From the employee handbook: “We are a non-union operation, and we prefer to remain that way.”) How might things have been different if our labor agencies were funded like other law enforcement agencies, deterring violations because corporations so feared getting caught?

Consider also the impact of fissured workplace models, in which large multinational companies often avoid employer obligations by subcontracting, using temp agencies, or franchising; our laws generally let the big fish off the hook for whatever happens next. Packers Sanitation woos potential clients by noting that outsourcing can “take the liability and risk off your facility’s record.” Indeed, the children at the automotive plant worked for a Hyundai subsidiary, which itself blamed a temp agency for the problem.

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Part of the current impetus for relaxing child labor laws is likely the ongoing labor shortage. But once the laws are loosened, they’re unlikely to change back once the shortage is over. Plus, the shortage stems in part from devaluing worker health: How many people died or were disabled after contracting COVID at work because of inadequate workplace protections? It also results from devaluing immigrant workers: How many aren’t here anymore because of virulently anti-immigrant attitudes and actions? Immigration to the United States has been plummeting since the Trump era, with COVID restrictions reducing numbers even more. The way our country treats workers, it’s no wonder we have a shortage. But are the kids in ninth grade really the answer?

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Our country pays lip service to caring about workers on Labor Day, and lip service to caring about kids all year long. Now, one more risk to kids is plain: their current and future exploitation by predatory companies.

So we should be shocked, but also not shocked, by the most recent case. It’s one more example of valuing profits over people, whether they’re children, workers, or children who are workers. The Packers Sanitation case is a modern-day canary in a coal mine. If current trends continue, we may find ourselves out of the land of metaphor, with actual children in the coal mines, alongside that stone-dead canary.

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