In case you hadn’t noticed, there is very little that US employers won’t do to save a buck or two. As of late, that even includes breaking the law and hiring children as young as 12 to work dangerous jobs.
Last Friday, news broke that Packers Sanitation Services, one of the country’s largest food sanitation service providers, paid $1.5 million in penalties for illegally employing 102 children to clean 13 different meatpacking plants on overnight shifts. The meatpacking plants included household names like JBS Foods, Tyson, and Cargill and spanned eight states: Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Texas.
According to a release by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, children between the ages of 13 and 17 “…were working with hazardous chemicals and cleaning meat processing equipment including back saws, brisket saws, and head splitters.” At least three children suffered severe injuries on the job, including a chemical burn to the face. The rigorous demands of overnight work caused one injured minor to fall asleep in class and sometimes even miss school entirely.
Packers’ employment of children was both wrong and illegal. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, children under 14 are prohibited from working, and minors between the ages of 14 and 15 are not allowed to work past 7 PM on school days. Additionally, children are prohibited from working in hazardous conditions, which includes sanitizing meatpacking plants. Packers can’t claim ignorance on these accords: why else would the company, when placed under investigation by the Department of Labor, have manipulated records and intimidated children from sharing information?
This is all outrageous, but unfortunately, Packers is just the latest name in a long line of recent child labor law offenders. Last August, the Labor Department sued a Hyundai subsidiary in Alabama after discovering the facility had hired workers as young as 12. In December, the Department settled with a Nebraska labor contractor for JBS Foods after it was alleged that the contractor used “oppressive child labor.” We like to think of child labor as a dark part of America’s past, with soot-covered children working in factories and mines in the early 1900s. Sadly, it’s increasingly becoming part of our present as well.
If you can believe it, some states are in the process of loosening restrictions on child labor. In January, lawmakers in Iowa introduced a bill that would allow 14- to 17-year-olds to work in dangerous jobs like meatpacking, construction, and mining. It would also expand teens’ working hours and shield businesses from liability if the minors they employ are injured or killed on the job. Minnesota lawmakers introduced a similar bill last month that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work in construction.
Employers point to a “tight” labor market as their excuse for turning to child labor to fill vacancies. It’s true that the unemployment rate hit 3.4% last month, which is the lowest it’s been since 1969. But make no mistake about it – the issue we have on hand in America is not a shortage of workers but a shortage of employers willing to pay adequate wages and benefits. Packers made $460 million in revenue in 2021 and is owned by Blackstone, the largest private equity firm in the world valued at $112 billion. Surely, they can more than afford to raise starting wages to attract adult workers to fill any vacancies.
The recent uptick in child labor law violations at places like Packers highlights the need for a strong and robust Department of Labor with a capable leader at its head. In March, the current Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh, will leave his post to become the Executive Director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association. To continue Walsh’s good work, the Biden Administration must take its responsibility to nominate a formidable replacement seriously.
In the quest to find a new Labor Secretary, some high-profile party members have suggested names like Sean Patrick Maloney, the recently ousted DCCC chair whose district hopping in New York and poor handling of the party’s electoral committee is thought to have lost Democrats several seats in the House last November. Others find more promise in figures like Deputy Secretary Julie Su, a labor-friendly choice who was one of the chief architects of a Californian law that was designed to fight employee misclassification in the Golden State.
Former US Vice President Hubert Humphrey once said, “… the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children.” In a world where corporations are lobbying for child labor laws that conjure images of Dickensian orphans or American tenement houses, we hope the Biden Administration will push through an unapologetically pro-worker Secretary of Labor, who will fight back against this destructive corporate influence and the ruthless exploitation of children.