The Return of Child Labor: From Kids in Cages to Kids in Factories

In February, the Department of Labor (DOL) busted one of the largest food sanitation companies in the country for illegally employing at least 102 children across eight states. The minors toiled overnight, cleaning blood-stained floors and industrial saws at meatpacking facilities and slaughterhouses owned by major food corporations like JBS and Tyson Foods.

Packers Sanitation Services, Inc. (PSSI) has a horrible worker safety record, with three employees killed on the job and four accidents resulting in amputations since 2018. In this case, three of the children suffered injuries, including a 13-year-old who was burned with caustic chemicals during an 11 p.m.–7 a.m. shift.

The investigation merely reveals the tip of the iceberg of a growing trend. Although child labor was banned by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, this barbaric practice is on the rise in the US. According to the DOL, the number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws has increased by 283% since 2015. But the absolute numbers available to these agencies likely represent a tiny fraction, as most cases go unreported.

The Department of Labor busted one of the largest food sanitation companies in the country for illegally employing at least 102 children across eight states. / Image: Department of Labor, Wikimedia Commons

This shadow workforce doesn’t engage only in under-the-table functions such as scrubbing dishes and delivering meals for restaurants. Underage children, some as young as middle-school age, have been found working in meat plants deboning chicken sold at Whole Foods; making auto parts for Ford, General Motors, and Hyundai-Kia; baking pastries sold at Walmart and Target; processing milk used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream; sewing clothes for J. Crew and Fruit of the Loom; and packaging snacks sold by PepsiCo and General Mills.

The vast majority of these young workers are migrant children, predominantly from Central and South America. Facing hunger and devastation in their home countries, they are forced to seek a way out through the dangerous journey across the US border—and then to toil in brutal conditions to survive here.

Crisis and immigration

When Biden was elected, many people hoped for a more “humane” border policy compared to Trump’s forced family separations and kids in cages. Instead, most immigrants and asylum seekers are immediately arrested and turned away without due process. As of February 2023, more than 2.2 million immigrants have been expelled under Biden’s watch on the basis of the pandemic-era Title 42, and more than 3.3 million have been detained or otherwise deemed “inadmissible” under the “normal” racist immigration law, Title 8.

The draconian immigration policies of US capitalist politicians have also led to inhuman conditions on the Mexican side of the border. Tens of thousands of migrants are being crammed into shelters that can only accommodate a few thousand or languish in squalid camps on the streets. Desperation and anger reached new limits on March 27, as a fire at a government-run migrant detention center in Ciudad Juárez killed at least 40 people.

Biden’s immigration policy has led to a new kind of forced family separations, with a surge in children crossing the border alone while their parents are left behind. / Sarahmirk, Wikimedia Commons

Importantly, as we explained in previous articles, the implementation of Title 42 for all except unaccompanied minors has led to a new kind of forced family separation, with a surge in children crossing the border alone while their parents and families are left behind. Over the last two years, more than 250,000 minors entered the US by themselves.

It is estimated that two-thirds of all immigrant children end up working full time, often under conditions of forced labor and trafficking. A middle-school teacher near Miami explained that almost every eighth grader in her English learner program of 100 students works up to 12-hour days. Teachers at a high school in Grand Rapids estimated that 200 of their immigrant students worked full-time jobs while trying to keep up with school. The consequences are heart wrenching.

Children’s lives sacrificed at the altar of capital

The DOL recently stopped publicly reporting the deaths of immigrant child workers, so it is hard to find exact statistics. But at least a dozen young migrant workers have died over the past five years, including a 16-year-old crushed under a 35-ton tractor-scraper outside Atlanta and a 15-year-old construction worker who fell 50 feet from a roof in Alabama.

Minors working at a Hearthside food packaging plant said that spicy dust from giant batches of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos injured their lungs, and that they got back aches from moving heavy pallets of cereal all night. A young student in Grand Rapids began passing out in class and was hospitalized twice. Physically and mentally exhausted from working nights at a commercial laundry, she eventually dropped out of school and disappeared into oblivion. Her teacher observed that “It’s the new child labor. You’re taking children from another country and putting them in almost indentured servitude.”

The following words by Friedrich Engels in Conditions of the Working Class in England ring as true today as when they were first written in 1845:

It is unpardonable to sacrifice to the greed of an unfeeling bourgeoisie the time of children, which should be devoted solely to their physical and mental development, withdraw them from school and the fresh air, in order to wear them for the benefit of the manufacturers. 

Child labor was a regular feature of capitalist exploitation in England at that time. But, as the working class began to organize and fight back, this social disease was exported to countries under the yoke of imperialism. Today, 160 million children worldwide are involved in labor considered harmful to their health. Most of them are concentrated in the poorest countries, i.e., those ravaged by imperialism and crushed by the world market. That child labor has made a comeback in the US, the belly of the beast of world imperialism, reveals the bankruptcy of the capitalist system in its period of senile decay.

Friedrich Engels c.1840, young portrait
“It is unpardonable to sacrifice to the greed of an unfeeling bourgeoisie the time of children … in order to wear them for the benefit of the manufacturers (Engels).” / Image: Wikimedia Commons

The oppression of immigrant workers has always been a valuable tool for capitalists to super-exploit those forced into conditions of illegality and destitution. In this epoch of crisis, when many workers are starting to demand higher wages to keep up with inflation, the exploitation of undocumented workers—and even more so of vulnerable “unskilled” children without parental support—guarantees a source of cheap labor for the capitalists to keep up their profits.

To give just one example, PSSI was recently purchased by the largest private equity firm in the world, Blackstone, which paid its investors $432 million throughout 2019 and 2020 straight from PSSI’s coffers. Since the maximum fine for a child labor violation is $15,138 per child, all PSSI had to do was pay a $1.5 million fine and then get on with business as usual. 

Often, big companies use subcontractors to hire children, and when those staffing agencies are caught, they shut down and reopen under new names to avoid facing the consequences. The companies then make vapid PR announcements denying any wrongdoing, to the effect of: “We strongly dispute the safety allegations made and are proud of our safety-first culture.” In one instance, a representative for Ben & Jerry’s with the Orwellian title of “head of values-led sourcing,” said that if migrant children needed to work full time, it was preferable for them to have jobs at a well-monitored workplace.

In his time, Engels had a fitting answer to this disgusting, hypocritical argument:

The bourgeoisie says: If we do not employ the children in the mills, they only remain under conditions unfavorable to their development; and this is true on the whole. But what does this mean if it is not a confession that the bourgeoisie first places the children of the working class under unfavorable conditions, and then exploits these bad conditions for its own benefit, appeals to that which is as much its own fault as the factory system, excuses the sin of today with the sin of yesterday?

No illusions in the bourgeois state

In the face of rising child labor, state governments aren’t just turning a blind eye; they are actively moving to adjust laws to best serve the capitalists’ interests. Over the last two years, ten states have introduced, considered, or passed legislation to loosen restrictions on child labor laws.

Some of the bills propose legally allowing children as young as 14 and 15 to work in industrial laundries and freezers, meat coolers, and assembly lines, to lift heavy items onto shelves, or to drive themselves up to 50 miles to and from work. They would also allow teenagers to perform various forms of hazardous work under the fig-leaf of a “work-based learning program,” while providing employers legal immunity in the case of injury or death of a child under such a “program.”

Nebraska was among the states that approved a ballot measure in 2022 to progressively increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2026. However, the bill also had a clause proposing that 14- to 17-year-olds be paid just $9 with a gradual increase to $10 by the same year, with equally low “training wages” for 18- and 19-year-olds.

Unsurprisingly, these laws are being pushed through lobbying by the likes of the National Federation of Independent Business, the Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association, and Americans for Prosperity—the right-wing, dark-money group backed by Charles Koch.

Charles Koch 2016 Aspen, Colorado Fortune Brainstorm TECH via Flickr
Laws to loosen restrictions on child labor are being pushed by bosses’ associations of the likes of Americans for Prosperity, the dark-money group backed by Charles Koch. / Image: Fortune Brainstorm TECH, Flickr

As Marx explained, the modern state is “but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” We must have no illusions that “progressive” legislation, “kinder” politicians, or Biden’s proposal to form a new “interagency task force” and to “appeal” to Congress will bring about any fundamental change.

The labor movement, under socialist leadership, won the eight-hour workday and legislation banning child labor through bitter class struggle. Today, as then, there is only one social force with the power to force the bosses’ hands: the working class, united and organized across all ages and nationalities.

The bourgeois play no essential role in society and offer the majority only suffering and oppression. They accumulate massive wealth by ruthlessly exploiting men, women, and children worldwide. Once that wealth is freed from private ownership and put to the service of humanity under a workers’ government, we can end the barbarism once and for all. In the words of Engels:

These unhappy children, perishing in this terrible way, are victims of our social disorder, and of the property-holding classes interested in maintaining and prolonging this disorder… I broadly accuse [the bourgeoisie] of social murder. Let the ruling class see to it that these frightful conditions are ameliorated, or let it surrender the administration of the common interests to the laboring class.

Are you a communist?
Then apply to join your party!