In this op-ed, writer Kim Kelly explains the history behind child labor laws following a report that the Trump administration’s Department of Labor is considering rolling them back.
President Donald Trump's administration is breaking new ground in its war on theworkingclass with a new effort to deregulate child labor. Bloomberg Law reported that according to “sources familiar with the situation,” a new proposal from the Department of Labor would loosen a host of workplace regulations, including what’s known as the Hazardous Occupations Orders, which protects workers between the ages of 16 and 18 from long hours and prohibits them from receiving extended training in fields with heavy machinery and manufacturing that may put lives in danger.
Under this reported new plan, which Bloomberg Law also obtained in the form of a drafted regulation to corroborate their sources, a 16-year-old in an apprenticeship program would legally be able to operate a chainsaw or take a roofing job — occupations that are hazardous for adults, let alone children. A Department of Labor spokesperson declined to comment or confirm the proposal to Bloomberg Law.
As Bloomberg Lawnotes, optimists hope the relaxed regulations will spur job creation by allowing more young workers to enter the workplace unencumbered by safety regulations. But these regulations have a history, and it's dangerous to destroy them.
These protections were put in place because children have been subjected to difficult and dangerous working conditions.
In 1906, a young coal miner named Frank had his photograph taken by Lewis Hine, a New York City schoolteacher and sociologist. A three-year veteran of the West Virginia mines at age 14, Frank had to be hospitalized for a year after his leg was crushed by a coal car. At the time, it was perfectly legal for him to have been there. He wasn’t alone: Some of Frank’s coworkers may have been as young as eight.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, child workers in the matchstick industry spent up to 16 hours a day toiling in cramped factories, breathing in white phosphorus used to make the match tips flammable. Many of them were struck with a affliction known as “phossy jaw” due to the fumes. Sufferers dealt with serious dental issues until, ultimately, their teeth fell out, their jaws rotted away, and their exposed jawbones glowed in the dark.
In bygone days, children in the U.S. toiled in factories, mills, sweatshops, farms, and mines; now, many are still out in the fields or roaming construction sites. The types of labor may have changed, but the need to protect our youngest workers remains. Decades after crooked railroad bosses, cruel factory owners, and evil coal barons reigned supreme, children’s safety is once again under attack.
Impactful policy was the reason children received protection from these conditions..
Eighty years ago, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), effectively barring “oppressive child labor.” The FLSA also bars children under the age of 16 from holding non-agricultural jobs and disallows teens aged 16-18 from “hazardous employment” that could be proven to be potentially detrimental to their health or well-being. It wasn’t a perfect piece of legislation — Southern senators figured out ways to bend its rules to allow them to exploit black children — but it was better than nothing, and could have saved countless children like Frank from being injured or killed on the job.
However, in 2018, children in the U.S., as well as children in many other countries around the world from Zimbabwe to Denmark to China. Some still toil in the same horrific conditions their predecessors faced in the bad old days before child labor was acknowledged to be an issue.
Among the most important protections for young workers was the “hazardous employment” clause. But now — thanks to Trump and his crusade to cut worker protections — regulations intended to protect 16- and 17-year-olds from the dangers of working in unsafe conditions could be under immediate threat. According to the Department of Labor website, the FLSA “prohibits minors under 18 years old” from engaging in occupations like excavation, manufacturing explosives, mining, and operating many types of power-driven equipment.
Under Trump’s proposed plan, those safety-minded regulations could be lifted. The infamous head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, also made headlines earlier this year for his plot to roll back federal standards that protect children under 18 from being exposed to toxic pesticides at work — something that would disproportionately affect children working on farms, many of whom are immigrants or undocumented and who are already exempt from many labor regulations thanks to FLSA’s less stringent rules for farm workers.
Destroying these labor laws will have the biggest impact on kids who need to work, whether it’s to support themselves or their families.
Consider an example of how this bright idea would be detrimental for a working class 17-year-old with a part-time job at a deli that helps supplement their family’s income. Under the current FLSA regulations, this teen would not be allowed to work a meat slicer because it’s deemed to be too dangerous. But without FLSA restrictions, the deli’s boss could send a young employee to the meat counter.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that there were 244,000 16- and 17-year-olds with full-time employment in 2017 and another 1.6 million employed part-time. Data sorted by industry includes 18- and 19-year-olds, but shows that millions of young people participate in industries like agriculture, construction, and manufacturing.
The reasons teens seek employment vary, but a 2015 study from the Urban Institute drawing on data from the American Community Survey between 2008 and 2012 found an alamring rate of 16- to 18-year-olds had dropped out of school in order to work full time, with 60% of them contributing more than 10% to their families’ incomes.
The unspoken impact of the kind of regulation-slashing scheme the Trump administration reportedly championed in its proposal is that, of course, poor and working-class kids will suffer the most because they’re the ones who need to seek work and take available jobs, even if they involve heavy machinery, construction, or manufacturing.
Everyone deserves well-regulated, safe workplaces, not hazardous job sites where they face dangers before they’re old enough to vote. Deregulating child labor is a new low in Trump's prolonged assault on the American worker, and cutting these necessary protections could endanger young workers for the sake of bolstering his monosyllabic enthusiasm for “jobs, jobs, jobs!” History has shown us how working in dangerous conditions has ruined or stolen both futures and lives. It begs the question: How much is a paycheck really worth?