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In US, children die working. Here’s whom to blame for it

In US, children die working. Here’s whom to blame for it

The Fair Labor Standards Act is the foundational statute regulating work in the US. Aside from child labour, it covers minimum wages, hours, overtime rules and worker classification. Its definition of employment is broad: Even someone who isn't an employee according to tax law can still be one under labour law, with all the rights and protections the status confers.

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Last Updated : 03 May 2024, 05:03 IST
Last Updated : 03 May 2024, 05:03 IST
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By Kathryn Anne Edwards

America has a horrific child labour problem. Violations have increased more than 250 per cent since 2017. Children have died in shocking circumstances: unjamming a blocked sawmill in Wisconsin, sucked into a poultry machine in Mississippi, falling off a roof in Alabama.

What's most disturbing is that this outcome was completely predictable, the result of an intentional starving of labor law enforcement. Child exploitation wasn't the goal, but it’s certainly a consequence.

The Fair Labor Standards Act is the foundational statute regulating work in the US. Aside from child labour, it covers minimum wages, hours, overtime rules and worker classification. Its definition of employment is broad: Even someone who isn't an employee according to tax law can still be one under labour law, with all the rights and protections the status confers.

The Obama-appointed head of the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, David Weil, sought to apply the law. He tried to expand overtime protection and limit the use of contractors in place of employees. For his efforts, he earned the enmity of business associations and Republicans, who — after a period of lax enforcement under President Donald Trump — rejected his re-appointment by President Joe Biden. This left a crucial post for the protection of workers vacant for the first three years of Biden's administration.

Congress has also starved the Labor Department of funding. In 2023, the Wage and Hour Division's enforcement budget stood at $260 million, up just 22 per cent in inflation-adjusted terms from 1989 (when Ronald Reagan, no champion of workers' rights, was leaving the presidency). Over the same period, the US labor force grew 35 per cent. As of last month, the division had 696 inspectors, about 300 fewer than a decade earlier.

Meanwhile, abuses flourish. Consider wage theft, which can include withholding paychecks, ordering employees to clock out and then keep working and not covering time to get changed into uniforms. Alternatively, employers inflate titles to create more managers, who aren’t entitled to overtime pay. The hostess becomes a Guest Experience Leader, the barber a Grooming Manager, the front desk clerk a Director of First Impressions. By one estimate, in 2019 alone more than $9 billion was stolen from a subset of low-wage workers — those who had signed agreements waiving their right to sue in court.

Given this context, it's hardly surprising that children are being put to work illegally. It's the result of a policy choice. Employers looking to overtly cheat workers or exploit children face the same obstacle as those who want to keep their workers as contractors or avoid overtime: robust enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act — which, when properly applied, does what it’s supposed to do.

Last year, a Wage and Hour inspector found children illegally operating heavy equipment at Tuff Torq, a Tennessee manufacturer that supplies parts to John Deere, Toro, and Yamaha. The government fined the company $296,000 and required it to set aside $1.5 million for the exploited children. The tragedy is that the case is an exception, not the rule. Enforcement matters. If legislators purport to care about children, and about workers, it's glaringly obvious what they need to do.

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