The Unjust Cost of Child Labor

October 26, 2023

The rise in exploitative child labor is both a policy and societal failure. We see it most clearly in the Fair Labor Standards Act—where employers are subject to a civil penalty not to exceed $68,801 if a labor violation leads to the death of a child worker. Yet, across America, policymakers are promoting child labor as necessary economic policy—making reports of grisly injuries and deaths of child workers routine.

Across various states, corporations have successfully lobbied policymakers to reduce child labor protections that save children from dangerous and exploitative work. New Hampshire now allows children as young as 14 to bus tables where alcohol is served, and Arkansas recently enacted a law allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to work without parent permission. Similarly, Iowa has loosened age restrictions for children 14 and older to work in the previously excluded fields of roofing, demolition, and manufacturing.

Fueled by arguments of increasing labor supply and job opportunities for young workers, the reality is that employers want to employ children in order to exploit them—paying them lower wages and offering worse working conditions than they would have to pay and offer to adult workers. Promoting child labor not only harms the children involved but also leads to a race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions for all workers. Corporations haven’t been quiet about profiteering from child labor either. Businesses have openly defied existing child labor protections and funded a multistate campaign with 115 lobbyists to dismantle child labor protections in 22 states.

The exploitation of child labor is not a new phenomenon. However, campaigning across the country to increase child labor as a means to reduce labor costs and increase profits lacks precedent. Shifting the laws and public sentiment about child labor has the power to undermine labor standards and put the welfare of children at risk for years to come. The persistence of “right-to-work laws” since their implementation in the 1940s is evidence that reductions in labor protections are not easily undone.

It is essential that we—as Americans, parents, and workers—stand up in solidarity against any efforts to lower child labor protections. Policymakers can support this movement through critical updates to the 85-year-old Federal Labor Standards Act, which would ban employment for all children under 16 and significantly strengthen the enforcement and penalties of child labor violations. Companies that use child labor in their supply chains or seek to exploit child labor in any way must be held accountable for their actions. Only by doing so can we improve the lives of children, fight back against corporate profiteering, and ensure a future where all workers are treated with dignity, respect, and fairness.