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“Washington, We Have a Problem”


Revelations concerning the use and exploitation of child labor determined by the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor relating to Packer’s Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI) represents only the tip of an iceberg.  Subsequent investigations show two distinct areas of concern with regard to employment of minors.  The first relates to the involvement of children predominantly in agriculture and the fast-food industry, with the consent of parents.  The second and more serious aspect relates to human trafficking and exploitation.  Both issues need to be addressed.


The United Nations International Labor Organization specifically condemns work undertaken by children that could be physically dangerous and deprives them of their opportunity for education.  The U.S. operates under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act that addressed inequities that arose during the Great Depression.  Currently, child labor is governed by a patchwork of state laws enacted for the convenience of employers responding to intensive lobbying.  Generally, businesses are prevented from employing workers under 14 years of age.  Those who are older can work for limited hours during the day with restrictions on night shifts and school days.  Many laws and regulations prohibit placing children in contact with potentially dangerous machinery or hazardous chemicals. Generally, laws allow employment of 15-year-olds to work night shifts with parental permission.


There is a growing trend towards liberalization of employment laws.  This stems, in part, from the activities of the Foundation for Government Accountability based in Florida and its lobbying arm, the Opportunity Solutions Project. The Foundation has apparently engaged over 100 lobbyists in 22 states to advocate for a relaxation of rules on child labor basically advancing the concept of “parental consent”.  The state of Arkansas recently passed a child labor act that is regarded as regressive and characterized by the federal government as “irresponsible”.  The Director of the University of Arkansas School of Law Human Trafficking Clinic, stated, “As a practical matter, this is likely to make it even harder for the state to enforce our own child labor laws.”  The state of Iowa has approved a bill, yet to be enacted, that would allow greater use of minors in both agriculture and industry. Missouri appears to be following the trend to allow child labor under the influence of the Foundation for Government Accountability. Other states considering relaxation of child labor laws include Georgia and Minnesota.


The second and more insidious aspect of child labor relates to human trafficking.  For the past two years, more than 250,000 migrant children have entered the United States as unaccompanied minors.  Their initial reception is under the Department of Homeland Security.  Children are then released to sponsors or family members from detention centers with minimal investigation or vetting.  The Department of Labor is responsible for ensuring that minors are housed and provided with a work environment consistent with prevailing laws.  This split responsibility, characteristic of Washington, has created a situation that is exploited by unscrupulous, private service agencies and employers.  The Department of Health and Human Services is receiving reports of employment of undocumented children in hazardous occupations, many connected to agriculture.  It is unconscionable that the responsible Departments of the Federal Government cannot account for 85,000 of the known 250,000 migrants.


Before the publicity afforded the PSSI case, exploitation of children with or without parental permission was a topic under the social radar but clearly should now be addressed. The criteria to be applied should include:-  

  • Work conditions and hours of employment that are regulated.
  • The physical and mental health of children is not affected by work schedules.
  • Children are not deprived of educational opportunities.
  • Employment is financially beneficial and provides for positive development and training.


Exploitation on the other hand, especially of undocumented migrants, is pernicious and should be investigated and suppressed and those responsible subjected to the penalties of law.  Unfortunately, the agricultural and food sectors appear to be the most involved in illegal and undesirable practices.


Since there will be criminal and reputational consequences for exploiting minors, poultry producers should review their staffing, recruitment and conditions of employment of all workers under 18 years of age.  As a national issue, every citizen should be concerned and should raise the issue of child labor in assessing candidates for office in the upcoming 2024 election.