Anastasia Christman is a senior policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project.
Last month activists all over the planet shined a light on the persistence of child labor on the World Day Against Child Labor. As many as 215 million children world-wide lose the chance to learn, play and grow as they instead are compelled to join the workforce, often under grueling conditions. As we in the United States celebrate the anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) passed in 1938, we should recommit to the part of its mission dedicated to fighting oppressive child labor in our own country.
Researchers have found violations in the growing retail industry, where children may be forced to work longer hours and later into the night than federal standards allow, or could be asked to work off the clock entirely. For some big companies, like Wal-Mart, there have been multiple instances: in 2005, the Department of Labor found the company had assigned workers under 18 to operate dangerous cardboard balers and chain saws; in 2004, an internal audit found more than 1,300 instances of minors working prohibited hours; and in 2000, Maine discovered child labor violations in every one of the Wal-Mart stores in the state. In Tennessee, 34 hotel and motel franchises were fined for labor law violations, including nearly $15,000 for “repeat FLSA and child labor violations.” According to Human Rights Watch in its report, “Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture,” hundreds of thousands of children labor in our country’s fields and farms, doing hard physical work sometimes for as little as $4.50 to $5.00 an hour.
In April, the Labor Department withdrew proposed rules that would have limited the work that children could do on farms; the rules would have prohibited children from handling dangerous pesticides or operating heavy machinery. Despite specific exemptions for family farms, the lobbying might of big corporate farms and industry groups quashed the rule even as fatalities for children on farms are four times higher than those in non-agricultural work.
The fight to outlaw child labor in this country was not an easy one. It took 30 years to adopt legislation protecting the youngest among us from dangerous workplaces, and legislative efforts to strengthen these protections in the 21st century have failed. Contemporary budget cuts to the Department of Labor makes ongoing enforcement of even the existing rules a challenge. And in Maine and Wisconsin, new laws make it easier to hire minors for significantly less than the minimum wage.
Seventy-four years ago the FLSA was signed into law stating that “oppressive child labor in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce” was unlawful. Let us hope it doesn’t take another 30 years to recognize that child workers in many industries are still in danger and recommit to protect them and give them their childhoods back.