Child Labor

The Working Catholic: Child Labor by Bill Droel

It is a fallacy to believe that if teenage members of a family spend more time on a job, the family will necessarily gain upwardly mobility. Nor is it true that our economy prospers when young people neglect their studies for the sake of income. Yes, employment trains teenagers and young adults in public disciplines plus gives them some outlook on social psychology. However, excess hours on the clock are not beneficial.
The current though relative labor shortage does not justify what N.Y. Times reporter Hannah Drier brought to light about child labor in articles from late February 2023 until early May 2023. Several companies are using children in restricted jobs for excessive hours and sometimes failing to pay them justly—835 companies last fiscal year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Packers Sanitation Services based in Kieler, WI, as one example, had 102 teenagers on overnight shifts cleaning back saws, brisket saws and head splitters in meat processing plants. Packers, which is owned by Blackstone investments, was fined $15million.
Drier found children illegally employed in retail, construction and manufacturing plus in sawmills, in an industrial laundry and in a slaughterhouse. Some were on the overnight shift and underpaid. Hearthside Food Solutions based in Downers Grove, IL contracts with popular brands to package food. Drier found many children at its Michigan facilities. Hearthside blames its staffing agency.
There are many ways to address a labor shortage, reports John Miller in Dollars & Sense (6/23). Raise wages and improve workplace conditions, though “both would drive up costs.” Immigration reform would also put more adults into the job pool legally. A few columnists and several trade associations favor another remedy: child labor.
“Ten states, six in the Midwest, have considered proposals” to loosen child labor restrictions, Miller details. A 1938 law (the Fair Labor and Standards Act) specifies conditions for employing teenagers after school, on weekends and holidays for reasonable hours in non-hazardous settings like cashier, caddy, hostess, usher, lifeguard, school janitor, delivery person, clerical and the like with leeway on family farms and in family shops. Despite these reasonable guidelines the pro-family governor of Arkansas recently signed legislation to eliminate a simple permit that required a child’s age verification, parental approval and a non-hazardous situation for employment. The N.Y. Times comments: The new law “is not to protect those children from exploitation but instead to make it legal.” Iowa is likely next.
The full story, as Drier writes, includes the plight of unaccompanied migrant children of whom about 130,000 came into the U.S. in the past 12 months. These fearful young people are easily exploited. Some are put in dangerous jobs. Most are underpaid and some are cheated out of their pay entirely. Not all these young adults come to the U.S. with full knowledge and will. Some are trafficked by cartels and then sold to construction subcontractors or to agricultural entities. Some are forced into prostitution or thievery.
What is our federal government doing to protect children? Well, the administration of President Joseph Biden is eager to clear out shelters near our border. Day labor agencies and even traffickers, posing as hosts, have moved some of these migrant children into dangerous and exhausting jobs. The Department of Labor, Miller mentions, is “severely understaffed.”
A retired Department of Labor official provides The Working Catholic with details. He was stationed in Chicago for ten years and then 18 more in Florida. There is “an immediately apparent difference” between southern states that have a so-called right to work law and those states with viable unions. Further, many northern states have local laws pertaining to child labor and sometimes fund apprentice training programs. “Active union presence serves to minimize child labor violations,” he says.
“Violations are typically not easy to see,” his narrative continues. Investigations occur after-the-fact and “must be developed from employer records, which is not easy. The Department of Labor is a civil enforcement arm, not criminal. Thus, the documented cases must then be adjudicated by the Department of Justice.”
What can law-abiding businesses and citizens do? Use union labor. If not, stipulate in writing that a contractor all not allow its subcontractors to use child labor. Second, support a local worker center. Arise (, a sophisticated worker center here in Chicago, takes up cases of wage theft and other labor violations. Escucha Mi Voz ( is a Catholic-based worker center. It helps people from ten language groups. Child labor in meatpacking is one of its concerns. Women religious, as on many issues, are leaders in anti-trafficking. They publish an informative newsletter, detail some action steps and supply reflection material. Their website is Human Rights Watch ( is based in New York City. It conducts research and reports on the topic.

Bill Droel (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629) is eager for any reports on child labor.