A billionaire-backed, right-wing lobbying effort is behind bringing back child labor in red states: report
Photo: Hine, Lewis Wickes, 1874-1940, photographer, Library of Congress

It has been nearly 100 years since children were taken out of the coal mines and put in schools, but some red states, such as Arkansas and Iowa, are looking for a new option. For most farms, immigrant workers that came into the United States were hired to work in these jobs. The significant reduction in immigrants created a void for workers. So, Republicans are turning to the next best place for cheap labor: children.

The Washington Post's Jacob Bogage and María Luisa Paúl explained that the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) and its lobbying arm, the Opportunity Solutions Project, are behind the effort to make adult workers compete with children.

“Because of the high demand for workers, where there are holes in the system, unfortunately, child laborers can get caught up in staffing some of those holes,” David Weil, a professor of social policy and management at Brandeis University, told the Washington Post in February.

The documentary film "The Harvest" shined a light on the plight of children forced to work in the fields, experiencing pesticide exposure and other bad conditions and sparked a movement among some Democrats to pass the Children's Act for Responsible Employment (CARE Act). It didn't pass.

While far-right conspiracy groups accuse Democrats of trafficking children, red states are doing their own version of trafficking children to pick crops and work in slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants.

“As a practical matter, this is likely to make it even harder for the state to enforce our own child labor laws,” the Washington Post cited Annie B. Smith, director of the University of Arkansas School of Law’s Human Trafficking Clinic. “Not knowing where young kids are working makes it harder for [state departments] to do proactive investigations and visit workplaces where they know that employment is happening to make sure that kids are safe.”

“The Labor Department has seen a 69 percent increase in minors employed in violation of federal law since 2018, officials reported. Between 2018 and 2022, federal regulators opened cases for 4,144 child labor violations covering 15,462 youth workers, according to federal data," said the report.

The claim by conservatives is that barring such child trafficking or banning child labor would harm low-income families by limiting their ability to work and earn money. Conservatives explain that the kids are going to work illegally anyway, so why not regulate it to ensure there are safe conditions. The problem with that claim is that Iowa's new child labor laws built-in protections for businesses, so if a child were injured or killed on the job, the company wouldn't have any responsibility. That's not the case in adult jobs.

The Economic Policy Institute explained that there are "serious child labor violations" on the rise "in hazardous meatpacking and manufacturing jobs."

Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota are the other states seeking to legalize child labor.

Critics of the FGA's stance argue that their arguments are misguided and ignore the long-term harm caused by child labor. Child labor not only harms the physical and mental health of children but also deprives them of education and future opportunities. Furthermore, child labor often perpetuates the cycle of poverty, as children who work are more likely to earn lower wages as adults and have limited upward mobility.

It's all brought by "a broad swath of ultraconservative and Republican donors — such as the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation and 85 Fund, a nonprofit connected to political operative Leonard Leo — who have similarly supported other conservative policy groups," said the Post. They're the same groups behind bans on the environmental, social, and governance expections that corporations or investors look to when examining risks. It's part of the ongoing war against so-called "wokeism." It's led to the fight between corporations such as Disney and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL).