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Does US Manufacturing Have a Child Labor Problem?

May 30, 2024
Incidents of child labor violations in the U.S. have risen since the pandemic.

The talent gap has been a problem for manufacturers for at least 30 years now. More recently, it has become a problem for those concerned about children’s welfare: Driven by demand for workers, low labor participation rates, untrustworthy temp agencies and failures of due diligence, child labor law violations are on the rise in the United States, including in manufacturing.

The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division in fiscal year 2023 recorded 955 investigations that uncovered child labor violations, 14% more than 2022. Their findings included 5,800 minors illegally employed in 2023, itself an increase of 88% since the same number in 2019.

In an interview with IndustryWeek, Jennifer Sherer of the Economic Policy Institute said that while the restaurant industry is “by far” the biggest violator of child labor laws, a number of incidents in recent years involve manufacturing companies employing minors to do dangerous work, with tragic consequences.

“Violations in industries where I think a lot of folks in the U.S. have come to assume we did not have children working in recent decades are also increasing,” Sherer said. “That includes manufacturing, meat and poultry processing, really hazardous operations. … In places, we’re seeing teen violations of child labor laws, but also teen injuries. In some cases, fatalities.”

In 2022, a Department of Labor investigation found Packers Sanitation Services Inc. had employed more than 100 employees between 13 to 17 years old in hazardous work, and that three had suffered injuries on the job from working with harsh chemicals. In 2023, Reuters broke a series of stories on Hyundai and Kia suppliers in Alabama that used a network of temp agencies to hire children to work in parts factories with hazardous equipment. Also in 2023, a 16-year-old boy died from injuries sustained at his job in a Florence Hardwoods sawmill in Wisconsin.

Sherer, who tracks “worker power” at the Institute, says federal child-labor standards have changed little since the Fair Labor Standards Act was originally passed in 1938. As a consequence, federal child-labor laws are usually more permissive than state laws: Where work permits for minor workers exist, for example, they’re governed by state laws and may differ from state to state, industry to industry.

For manufacturers, federal law is mostly relevant for their restrictions on “hazardous” operations. It’s illegal for any company in the U.S. to employ minors to perform work related to 17 conditions that legally constitute “hazardous” work, including work with sawmill operations, power-driven metal forming machines and meat-packing equipment.

How are state laws around child labor changing?

The increase in child-labor law violations in the U.S. coincides with a movement to cut back on state-level child-labor protections. In several of these cases, rollbacks are explicitly tied by advocates as a way to fill jobs under current low unemployment, as well as a way to boost teens’ lifetime earnings.

Similarly to the rise in labor violations, Sherer notes, most of the effort to cut regulations against teen labor come from non-manufacturing sectors like restaurants. But some do include reduced requirements for manufacturers looking to hire teens: Sherer specified Iowa as an “extreme example” that involved the manufacturing industry, noting that it allows teens to work in fireworks factories.

The bill, passed by the Iowa state legislature in May 2023, allows teens under eighteen to work “in or about plants or establishments manufacturing or storing explosives or articles containing explosive components,” but only if they are engaged in “light assembly work” away from machines or selling the fireworks to consumers.

The Foundation for Government Accountability, a policy thinktank that advocates for less government intervention in youth employment, among other issues, also singled out Iowa’s 2023 law, but praised it for “making it easier for teenagers to work.”

“While limiting involvement in hazardous occupations like mining is common sense, teenagers should not be prohibited from being paid to do tasks they likely already do in their own homes,” the foundation said, noting the bill also lets teen employees load vehicles, run microwave ovens, and do laundry.

While the FGA calls for less red tape around teen employment, and the EPI objects, some states are trying to chart a bipartisan path to stem the tide of child labor violations. In her interview, Patricia Todd said that her group was working with Alabama’s pro-business state legislature to craft a bill that would “claw back” state economic incentives given to companies later implicated in child labor violations.

Todd said the bill so far has proved popular enough to pass the state Senate unanimously, but must gain the approval of the state’s Department of Commerce for it to survive the state’s House and become law. “If the Department of Commerce comes out in opposition to a bill, it’s not going to pass Alabama,” Todd said.

Despite the legislative action to relax standards around minors at work, it’s not clear that manufacturers are intentionally employing more teens and minors as a strategy: In terms of SMART Alabama LLC, many manufacturers use temp companies for staffing purposes who do not find themselves employing minors. But teens working legally or illegally in manufacturing plants poses a greater safety risk than working in other industries.

In April, the American Society of Safety Professionals published its formal position on child labor. In it, the ASSP acknowledged the “associated benefits and responsibilities of having a job,” it strongly condemned “exploitative child labor practices” and called for its prohibition in global safety standards, including ISO 45001.

“Safety, health and well-being are inherent rights of every worker,” said ASSP President Jim Thornton, in a statement. “This isn’t an issue we can solve alone, but entities working together can begin to turn the tide.”  

About the Author

Ryan Secard | Associate Editor


Focus: Workforce and labor issues; machining and foundry management

Associate Editor Ryan Secard covers topics relevant to the manufacturing workforce, including recruitment, safety, labor organizations, and the skills gap. Ryan has written IndustryWeek's Salary Survey annually since 2021 and has coordinated its Talent Advisory Board since September 2023.

Ryan got started at IndustryWeek in August 2019 as an editorial intern and was hired as a news editor in 2020 before his 2023 promotion to associate editor, talent. He has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the College of Wooster.

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