Won’t somebody please think of the children?
Much of conservative politics these days is expressly focused on children. For them, we must “protect” unborn children by restricting bodily autonomy. We must “protect” young students by banning books with gay teenagers in them. We must “protect” children from mass shootings by arming their teachers.
Conservatives are always thinking of the children, always looking out for them. That’s why they want to send them back into the factories.
In the past two years, at least 10 states have passed or introduced bills that weaken child protection laws in the workplace. In states like Iowa, 14 and 15-year-olds can now work in industrial laundry services, freezers and meat coolers – types of work previously prohibited to them because of how dangerous these jobs are. Children as young as 16 can now serve alcohol.
A proposed bill in Minnesota would have allowed 16-year-olds to work on construction sites, and in Nebraska, a proposed bill would allow employers to pay children less than the state’s minimum wage.
Dangerous work for starvation wages – good thing Republicans are looking out for the children. Quickly, ban Marx from the classroom before the child workers get their hands on him!
And when the capitalists cannot legally employ children like they do in Iowa, they will find ways to do it illegally. For example, a 2023 Department of Labor investigation found that 16 McDonald’s locations in Louisiana and Texas saw children as young as 14 operating dangerous equipment and working longer hours than the law allowed. They also found two 10-year-olds working long hours without pay at a McDonald’s in Kentucky.
Child labor violations like these have spiked in recent years. In 2015, the U.S. Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division found just over a thousand minors employed in violation of child labor laws. By 2022, that number had more than tripled.
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Child labor is quite attractive to the capitalist class, especially when the labor market is tight like it was in the wake of the pandemic. In the eyes of an employer, a minor is a cheaper and more docile worker. And the only thing better than a child laborer is a migrant child laborer.
In September, The New York Times Magazine published Hannah Dreier’s “The Kids on the Night Shift,” a story about the possibly hundreds of thousands of migrant children in all 50 states working for companies like Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods.
The story is horrifying, with scenes that could have been lifted straight from Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” Descriptions of children cleaning blood and guts off of floors, gearing up in protective suits so they don’t get chemical burns and getting maimed by bone crusher machines paint the dire situation these kids are in.
Dreier explains that in recent years people in countries like Guatemala have been sending their children unaccompanied to America to find work because children are generally not turned away at the border as often as adults. The capitalist vultures then put these children to dangerous work, and the kids can never complain out of fear of losing their job or being deported.
With all this rhetoric about protecting children, why do I never hear a peep from conservatives about children in the factories of America? Why do I instead see the Republican Party throughout the country serving the interests of the exploiters, trying to make it easier for them to employ our country’s youth?
For the Republicans, these migrant children may as well not exist. After all, for them, these children aren’t even people – they are the “illegals” that we must build a wall to keep out. (This may sound like a contradiction, and it is – Republicans simultaneously want cheap migrant labor, but they also want to demonize immigrants. Their worldview is famously incoherent bigotry.)
Those who are actually concerned about the welfare of children in this country should fiercely oppose the grotesque exploitation of children, regardless of citizenship status. Protecting children will necessarily require an anti-capitalist approach. Capitalists care only for profit and have shown time and time again their utter disinterest in how that profit is acquired.
Additionally, we must address the draconian border policies in this country. America does not have clean hands when it comes to the economic struggles of Latin America. American imperialism has wrecked so many countries south of the border, and when they come here seeking a better life, we turn them away, we separate families. Children wouldn’t feel compelled to come here alone if we allowed their parents in the country.
Kids should be in school and hanging out with their friends. They should never find themselves on a construction site or tending bar for less than minimum wage. They should never find themselves hurt – or even killed – just so they can send money to their families back home.
It’s a little insane that I have to say, in the year of our Lord 2023, that child labor is bad and should be abolished. This should have been settled by now. Won’t somebody please think of the children?
Jared Quigg (he/him) is a senior studying journalism and political science.