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What’s happening with
US child labor?

Child labor in the United States has been persistently in the news cycle due to a recent, massive increase in violations of Federal child labor laws, and because of investigations by the New York Times, Reuters, and PBS into unaccompanied migrant children in illegal and potentially trafficked child labor. 

In February 2023, the Biden Administration announced new measures to tackle non-agricultural child labor and to better support unaccompanied children at the Federal level. However, some legislators at the State level are making it easier to hire children. Labor shortages and ‘freedom of choice for parents’ are being cited as justifications for allowing more children to take on work.

These new state laws and proposed bills usually interfere with children's schooling by extending the hours they can work when school is in session, and some remove State-level protections which are stronger than Federal law - such as ending requirements for work permits and age certification, and allowing children to serve and sell alcohol. The worst, some of the new and proposed laws put children's lives at risk by allowing them to do hazardous work.

US Department of Labor:

  • Since 2019, there has been an 88% increase in the number of children employed in violation of child labor laws. In 2023, the US Department of Labor reported child labor violations against almost 5,800 children

  • The rate at which violations are being uncovered in 2023 has increased as a result of increased enforcement, but with a backlog of over 800 cases, more DOL inspectors are needed. At present there are 740 investigators to protect all 165 million workers in the United States.

Media investigations:

  • The New York Times investigation focused on unaccompanied children who have arrived in the United States seeking refugee status; the Reuters investigation and the PBS investigation included children in the same situation.

  • All investigations included interviews with children who are still in child labor, many whose employers have yet to be investigated by the Department of Labor.

  • Although the Biden Administration responded with a raft of measures, the New York Times subsequently revealed that White House staff ignored warnings from staff at the Department for Health and Human Services (HHS). Longtime HHS staffers raised concerns after they were asked to speed up the process of releasing unaccompanied children to ‘sponsors’, and hearing reports of children being exploited. Instead of their concerns being acted upon, several of the staffers were moved from their posts.

  • In April 2023, the Washington Post found that the Foundation for Government Accountability, a Florida-based conservative think tank and lobbying group, had been drafting state legislation to strip child workplace protections.



However, the media spotlight has yet to fall on the hundreds of thousands of children working in agriculture in the United States.

At present, it is legal for a child of any age to work in agriculture part-time, and full-time from the age of 12.

It is also legal for 16-17 year old children to work in hazardous agricultural occupations. 

 What is the federal government’s

 response to increased child labor? 

At the federal level, the Biden administration took action in 2023 in the wake of the New York Times investigation.

  • Plans were announced to initiate investigations in parts of the country more likely to have child labor violations.

  • A joint task force between the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for child migrants, was established. 

  • Congress has been asked to increase the penalties for violations of child labor, stating that the maximum of $15,138 is not enough of a deterrent; and to increase funding for its enforcement teams in order to increase investigations into violations of child labor laws.

  • Employers will be held accountable by the DoL for using agencies which recruit child laborers.

 

The Biden Administration has not announced any action to tackle child labor in agriculture.

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 What are States doing? 

Unfortunately, at the state level, there have been persistent efforts by legislators to roll back child labor protections. Broadly, the different bills and acts aim to increase the number of hours a child can work, extend the working hours a child can work later into the night, and to lower the age at which a child can work in certain jobs or industries including hazardous work.

  • In March 2023, a report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a nonpartisan think tank, found that between 2021-2023, ten states have introduced bills or enacted laws which reduce protections for children. Since then, both EPI and the Kailash Satyarthi Children's Foundation US have been tracking further bills: by the end of 2023, 17 states had introduced or enacted bills to reduce protections for children. In some of these states, multiple bills reducing protections have been introduced.

  • The 17 states are Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Several of these states have existing child labor legislation which violates the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

  • New legislation has already been enacted in Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Tennessee.

  • In Wisconsin, Governor Tony Evers vetoed the bill to extend working hours for 14-15 year-olds, but two further bills have since been introduced; in Georgia and South Dakota the bills were withdrawn; and in Virginia, the bill failed in the House.  

Most of these efforts are backed by employers and their associations.

More positively, seven states have introduced or enacted bills to strengthen protections for children

 How many children in the United States are child laborers? 

Although there are estimates of the number of child laborers in agriculture, and the Department of Labor provides detailed numbers of recorded child labor violations, the likelihood is that the number of child laborers is much higher than these figures combined. 

 

  • Estimates vary between 300,000-500,000 children in the US agricultural sector. 

  • The US Department of Labor reported child labor violations against almost 5,800 children in 2023; this represents an 88% increase from 2019. 

Media investigations have shown that substantial numbers of unaccompanied migrant children are engaged in illegal child labor, which is going under the radar. Around 130,000 children entered the United States unaccompanied in 2022, some of whom could have been victims of organized trafficking. Many unaccompanied children have fallen through the cracks in child protection: in 2021 and 2022, data showed that the Department of Health and Human Services were unable to contact more than 85,000 children. Even when unaccompanied children are enrolled in schools, or have access to some form of caseworker, teachers, social workers, and support staff have little or no way to stop unaccompanied children entering child labor.

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 What can we do? 

 

KSCF US is tracking states for any newly proposed legislation and the progress of the existing bills and is updating this site regularly with news from across the United States, and with actions you can take directly to advocate to end child labor.

  • Visit our Child Labor Map to find out what's happening in your state.

  • Take action to prevent state bills passing into law by using our tools to write to decision-makers.

  • If there are proposed changes to protections for children in your state, spread awareness among your community by voicing your opposition on social media or by writing to the editors of your local media. 

  • If you are in a position to support us financially, you can donate to KSCF US to help us run the campaign.

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