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Jessica Martinez and Marcy Goldstein-Gelb are co-executive directors of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. This column was produced for the Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.
Should a 13-year-old be working a hazardous job at night?
Packers Sanitation Services Inc. apparently thinks so. In 2022, the company hired a 13-year-old child from Guatemala as a night-shift cleaner at a Grand Island, Nebraska, meatpacking plant. The facility is owned by JBS, one of the world’s largest food companies.
The girl’s employment “came to an abrupt end after a nurse at Walnut Middle School found chemical burns, blisters and open wounds on her hands and one knee,” The Washington Post reported. The injuries arose from exposure to hazardous chemicals used to clean the blood, fat and animal parts that remain after a day on the killing floor.
Nobody — child or adult — should ever suffer “chemical burns, blisters and open wounds” at work. Such injuries are preventable with proper training, equipment and the full involvement of workers in creating and enforcing safety standards.
But we can’t expect a 13-year-old girl, new to the United States, to know about the Safety Data Sheets that are supposed to educate workers about how to handle toxic chemicals. And it’s unlikely that a young teenager would know how to use personal protective equipment to stay safe in a hazardous environment.
There’s a reason employers are hiring children in increasing numbers. With less information, less power and fewer options, they are easier to exploit.
The story of the girl from Guatemala, who chose to remain anonymous, is no isolated incident; child laborers have been discovered at auto parts plants in Alabama and at food processing plants in Michigan. The U.S. Department of Labor reported an astounding 283 percent increase in the number of children hired by employers in violation of U.S. labor law between 2015 and 2022. And that’s only the ones who got caught.
There are many reasons why states began imposing restrictions on child labor as far back as the 1880s; the federal government followed suit with the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. We know that young workers, whose bodies and minds are still developing, are at greater risk for workplace injuries than adults, are more susceptible to long-term risks from chemical hazards, and will suffer health and educational deficits from excessive work hours.
The facts are clear. But protecting workers, at any age, from undue harm is primarily a political question, not a technical one. Industry groups — including restaurant associations, home builders, chambers of commerce and others — are responding to the child labor crisis by making it worse.
Since 2021, legislators in 10 states have introduced bills, backed by industry, that would loosen child labor laws. On March 10 of this year, Arkansas’s Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a bill that eliminates age verification requirements for hiring 15- and 16-year-olds. A proposed bill in Iowa includes a provision that lets an employer escape legal liability if a child becomes ill, gets injured or dies while participating in a “work-based learning program.”
The current surge in child labor is driven by a long trend of declining union jobs, lopsided trade agreements and a broken immigration system that forces millions of adults to work in the shadows while creating desperate circumstances for families and children.
Children can’t wait for adults to solve these problems, which is why it’s urgent for us to enforce the child labor laws that already exist and push back forcefully against any attempts to weaken them. Our country has a shortage of safe, secure and good-paying jobs, not a shortage of workers.
Putting children at risk of getting maimed or killed at jobs they shouldn’t be doing in the first place is no solution.