Editorial: Child labor violations are soaring; Indiana loosens the rules

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The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette

In FY 2023, the U.S. Department of Labor concluded 955 investigations of child labor violations, a 14% increase from the previous year. It assessed more than $8 million in penalties, an 83% increase from the previous year.

It’s with this in mind that we wonder why the supermajority would join several other states in loosening laws that guard against the exploitation of minors.

Senate Bill 146 allows 18-year-olds to serve alcohol so long as they are supervised by someone over 21. Four Republicans joined the Democratic caucus to oppose the measure.

House Bill 1093 removes restrictions on the hours teenage employees can work. It also strikes agriculture as a “hazardous occupation,” which allows 16- and 17-year-olds to work in that sector, going well past a caveat that allowed young adults to work on their family’s property.

Who gains the most in the deregulation of child labor? Not the child. Indeed, loosening laws will mean a decrease in the amount of money the state’s Department of Labor takes in due to penalties – funds used to pay for inspectors and fund outreach.

In Indiana, between 2013 and 2023, the federal labor department adjudicated 110 cases, involving 1,943 violations and more than $607,000 in fines.

We’re not anti-capitalists, but we are fervently pro-child and anti-worker-exploitation. To quote Sen. Shelli Yoder, D-Bloomington, in her trepidation about these bills: “These fees are a result of bad players who are taking advantage of our youth. I am very concerned about the pairing of these two and being able to protect our youth when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace.”

Yoder’s words are even more fraught considering recent scholarly work on violence and child labor.

Last April, researchers from the University of Iowa and West Virginia University found that among 14- to 17-year-old workers across industries, 19% reported being harassed; 6% said they had been sexually assaulted.

Publishing in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, researchers reported that “many youth experience workplace violence (60%).”

“Verbal abuse of the sort that made victims feel scared and unsafe (53%) and sexual harassment (24%) were the most commonly reported forms of violence,” they wrote in the article’s abstract. “Females were more likely than males to experience workplace violence overall and sexual harassment in particular.”

If a child is traumatized at work, it could easily affect everything in that child’s life, from schoolwork to familial relationships.

On June 25, 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which included the nation’s first child labor laws, including restrictions on age and hours. The restrictions on child labor fundamentally changed how we societally thought about children.

“Thinking of the children as more than just their economic value eventually helped change the role of the children of the working class in American society,” wrote author Michael Schuman in a 2017 article about the history of child labor in the U.S. Bureau of Labor’s Monthly Labor Review.

It’s a history that we’ve forgotten, that socioeconomic class and child labor are often inextricably linked. What may be a confidence building rite of passage for some is often also much-desired extra income for some families.

Indiana is not an outlier here. Deregulation of child labor laws has been a coordinated effort among Republican-led states over the last decade. The fear is where this push may ultimately bottom out.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Labor uncovered violations reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”

In February 2023, the labor department issued new findings on an ongoing investigation of Packers Sanitation Services Inc. for illegally employing more than 100 children between the ages of 13 and 17 in hazardous occupations at 13 meatpacking facilities owned by some of the nation’s largest conglomerates, including JBS, Cargill and Tyson.

Children were working illegally on overnight shifts cleaning razor-sharp saws and other high-risk equipment on slaughterhouse kill floors. At least three of them suffered injuries, including burns from caustic cleaning chemicals.

Packers is owned by Blackstone, a private equity firm that is launching a $10 million fund to “enhance the well-being of children in the communities we serve and help reduce the prevalence of the rising problem of underage workers.”

Blackstone’s total assets as of Dec. 31, 2023, are $40.288 billion.

It’s odious that the Indiana legislature votes to deregulate child labor while simultaneously adding to education requirements, thus creating an even more stressful environment. Rather than seeing a child’s life as a holistic system, the GOP’s siloed approach is more likely to harm this generation than as it is to be of benefit.