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Over 100 years ago, the National Child Labor Committee used photos of children doing industrial work to demand change in America. Several states adopted child labor laws, and after much debate and several setbacks, the Fair Labor Standards Act became law in 1938. Its protections included the nation’s foundational child labor laws, including restrictions on the age of workers and hours they can toil.
As we reflect on this Labor Day holiday almost a century later, we must not overlook the recent federal investigation conducted by my staff in the Midwest that found children working overnight to clean a Nebraska meatpacking plant with caustic chemicals amid razor-sharp cutting machines and tools. The investigation found that two minors were employed by the same sanitation contractor in Milford, Indiana – shocking facts that reveal the ugly truth that some businesses are still illegally employing young teens and putting them at risk.
Since 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor has seen a 69% increase in children employed in violation of federal child labor laws. Hard-fought progress made five generations ago to eliminate child labor exploitation is being undone in cities and communities across the country.
America is better than that.
In February 2023, the Department of Labor launched an Interagency Task Force to Combat Child Labor Exploitation, bringing together federal agencies to improve information sharing, provide outreach and education to the public, and coordinate efforts to advance the health, education and well-being of children in the U.S.
The department has launched a National Strategic Enforcement Initiative on child labor and is using all of its enforcement and legal tools to stop companies from profiting illegally on the backs of children. It is taking violators to court and invoking the Fair Labor Standards Act “hot goods” provision to prevent shipment of goods produced using illegal child labor. It is also scrutinizing labor violations at all steps in industry supply chains.
To strengthen our efforts, our leadership has called on Congress to bolster protections for children and toughen penalties for companies that use child labor, which currently stand at a maximum of just $15,138 per violation. That’s not high enough to be a deterrent for major profitable companies.
Further, the Labor Department has requested increased funding for its enforcement agencies to investigate child labor cases and to expand outreach to employers, workers’ advocacy groups, schools and other community resources to educate employers and workers on the law.
We cannot put profitability ahead of the physical, emotional and educational well-being of children. That is not the basis for a sound and just economy. Our job is to make sure a teen’s work experience is positive and safe – and does not endanger them or interfere with their educational opportunities.
We cannot allow children in America to return to laboring in modern-day workhouses. Our national and state leaders must come to the table and work together to prevent the scourge of child labor abuse from again becoming an American-made tragedy.
We cannot build our economy on the backs of children. America was better than that 100 years ago, and America is better than that today.
Michael Lazzeri is the Regional Administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division in Chicago. His region includes Indiana.