« The Weeds

Why is child labor making a comeback?

2023-05-17

The first child labor law in America went on the books almost 200 years ago, and federal labor protections were enshrined in the Fair Labor Standards Act nearly 100 years later in 1938. So almost a century after the passage of the FLSA, why are we seeing reports of children working in factories, slaughterhouses, and even at McDonald’s? Meanwhile, state legislators are introducing bills across the country that further weaken child labor protections. Historian Beth English and Vox senior policy reporter Rachel Cohen explain.

References:

The Republican push to weaken child labor laws, explained | Vox

Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S. | The New York Times

10-year-olds among hundreds of children found working at McDonald's restaurants | NBC News 

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Jonquilyn Hill, host

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A.M. Hall, editorial director of talk podcasts

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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
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Attorney Preet Bharara. And this week, Presidential Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin joins me on my podcast, Stay Tuned with Preet. We talk about difficult times in America's history and how its people overcame them. The Code is out now. Search and follow Stay Tuned with Preet wherever you get your podcasts. I've found that the more you keep up with the news, it becomes harder and harder to be shocked by the day's top stories. Not too long ago, an investigative report by The New York Times shocked me. It details egregious child labor violations. Stories of children as young as 14 working at construction sites instead of going to school. 15-year-olds packaging Cheerios. Kids working at slaughterhouses. It was a good time to be a part of the family.
It was a horrifying read, and soon it became apparent that these weren't just one-offs. A few weeks later, NBC reported. That more than 300 children were working at several McDonald's locations. Two of them were only 10 years old. This... Of course, isn't the first time I'd heard of child labor. If you're of a particular age, You may remember reading the historical fiction books based on the American Girl dolls. And okay, I know this is a leap, but stick with me. One of the series tells the story of Samantha Parkington. A wealthy girl who lived with her grandmother at the turn of the century. Her best friend was an Irish immigrant who at one point worked in a factory. And that was my first thought when I heard about child labor. Not just because it was my very first entry point.
Into labor policy all those years ago, but because it really does feel like something from the past. But it's not. Department of Labor, child labor violations are up over 200% since 2015. And the issue is... Getting even more attention because of state-level bills designed to weaken restrictions. So how did we get here? What do changes in child labor regulations say about the state of working conditions in the U.S.? I'm John Gwen Hill and that's today on The Weeds. And has been covering the push to weaken child labor laws for Vox. She walked me through the proposed legislation. There's been laws introduced or passed in at least 10 states over the last couple of years. And the first two states to pass these laws was actually last year on the East Coast in New Hampshire and New Jersey.
Which essentially took aim at some similar things that we're seeing in the Midwestern states, although there are I'd say more going on now in the Midwestern states, but the push is there. Were about extending the hours that teenagers could work. And New Hampshire lawmakers also made it easier for 14-year-olds and 15-year-olds to bus tables where alcohol— the service. So previously they couldn't do it. Now that is allowed. And in New Jersey, So extended the hours that you could work in the summer when school is out of session. So now if you are. 16 and 17 year olds you could work 50 hours in the summer as opposed to 40 which was the previous limit So a lot of the laws Now, some of the rules might sound reasonable. So some of them right now during the school year you work until 7 p.m. at night. Some states are looking at extending that to 9 p.m. Those kinds of rules maybe doesn't seem as egregious.
Automatically. The concern a lot of people have is that this is not going to be the last stop, that there is going to be a lot of people who are going to be in the last stop. Be more pushes and they're going to start with these little tweaks. And one sort of example of that is That in Ohio, where Republican lawmakers did approve a bill to allow 14 and 15 year olds to work till 9pm instead of 7pm with parent permission, they also passed this concurrent resolution that urges Congress to amend federal labor laws to bring their roles in line with Ohio's change. So there's definitely interest in state lawmakers not only tweaking their standards, but also sort of long term changing the federal floor. And I think people look at some of the groups Laws that have had pretty clear ideological opposition to child labor rules for a long time and are It's so stressful that we're going to just stop here, that these loosening of laws will just be a one-time thing.
What about the rest of the country? What do we know about how this is working in the Midwest and in the South too? Earlier this month actually, Republicans in Wisconsin circulated this new bill that would allow workers as young as 14 to serve alcohol in bars and restaurants. And currently the rule is you have to be at least 18 years old. So that's a pretty big difference. And the bill sponsors there are also saying, you know, this will help with our workforce staffing issues. Other states that have really moved forward this year, so a really big one is Arkansas. So their governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, signed what they call the Youth Hiring Act in March. And what that law does is that eliminates the requirement that 14 and 15 year olds have to get work permits to work. Now work permits are not required under federal law.
But a lot of states, including Arkansas, have long required them. And while Republicans are now saying, Oh, that's just arbitrary paperwork, advocates for workers and especially migrant youth say that that has been a very important paper trail for the state to keep track of who was doing what and remind businesses of their responsibilities. So in March, Arkansas got rid of that requirement. And just for context, there were 10 children that... The Department of Labor found illegally working in Arkansas cleaning hazardous meatpacking equipment earlier this year. So it's not This isn't a problem in Arkansas and so people were really alarmed that at the same time that the federal government is finding these violations, the state is now making it harder to track who is doing what and overseeing. That kind of employment. There's another bill in Iowa that would again allow 16- and 17-year-olds to
Of alcohol in restaurants with their parent's permission, but it also has some fairly controversial provisions like that would allow young teens to work in fields that are currently prohibited if it was considered part of a school or like apprentice training program. Of the Iowa bill say, Oh, really hazardous jobs would still be barred. New exceptions definitely are more dangerous than others. Like you could work in demolition or manufacturing. Also to allow 16 and 17 year olds to work on construction sites. And in Iowa, would also allow 14 year olds to work in meat coolers. So as we were saying earlier, there are some changes that I think people can make. Maybe that isn't. So bad, maybe working until 9pm is not the end of the world if they're not working too many hours collectively, but there are definitely bills this year that have been creeping into
territory of like, We're going to allow younger kids to work in less safe jobs that we have Borrowed four reasons that now we're like, maybe those reasons we can change our mind about. Why are we seeing this now? Like, what is it about this moment where we're seeing, you know, this in-- We talked about why we're becoming more and more aware of child labor, but it feels like it's-- happening in tandem with this push to roll back restrictions. What's causing this? Do we know? So people have guesses. I mean, I think on the one hand, there has been this sort of low-grade, constant, conservative opposition to these rules for a long time. But what we also have today is a tight competitive labor market and you have lots of businesses struggling to find the source of available pool of workers.
They used to. We know that COVID changed a lot of the workforce dynamics. A lot of people retired early, you know, a lot of people who worked in lower paid jobs moved up, found better jobs. So now, rather than settle for just QR codes, which frankly, I mean, I don't love them, but I would take them over children. Yeah. There's, there's a lot of business community pressure on state lawmakers to help. Them fill in these shortages and a lot of people, a lot of businesses see teenagers as this very shiny Pool of labor that they could tap into. And so that's definitely been one key driving force behind these bills. Some lawmakers will say that. Some lawmakers will say like, This is a smart thing for our state. We can help businesses. Other lawmakers are kind of leaning into the parents' rights rhetoric and saying,
You know, this is just something a family should be able to decide. I think it's definitely clear that the lobbying from the business community and conservative groups together explains. Why we're seeing these now, but I, like you, also had this feeling like, wow, this feels like it's all coming up out of nowhere. I guess the last factor is like, there's this one group called the Foundation for Government Accountability, and they are basically a relatively newish conservative think tank and they've really played a leading role in Model legislation, working with state lawmakers, getting some of these things passed. So there's also the fact that there are some groups that are really investing a lot of their energy in the political process and being, I guess I So especially like in these days where they're passing this, we're hearing like, this is what we need for the workforce. for the workforce.
This will help, you know, families during tough economic times. But what are what are the risks of these laws? There are health and safety risks. Dangerous industries or unsafe conditions that poses a real risk to a kid who is still developing. There are also academic risks. One thing that advocates are really concerned about is there's Extending body of research that shows if you work too many hours, like if you work more than 20 hours a week, it's going to be really, really difficult for you to keep open. Your schoolwork. That's why a lot of part-time jobs in college can't be more than 20 hours a week because there's just not that much time in it. In a day, in a week to give things the priority it needs. Yeah. And so that is-- really one concern about extending the hours of the day like okay if your shift is from 7 to 9 p.m. at night maybe that's not so bad
But if your shift now can be from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., then that is a very different conversation. So that's the current legislative landscape. Up next, we'll take a trip back. Time to find out how our labor laws got here in the first place. Support for the show comes from Washington wise, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. Decisions made in Washington affect your portfolio every day. But what policy changes should investors be watching? Washington wise, an original. Podcast for investors from Charles Schwab tracks the stories making news right now and breaks them down for the average investor host Mike Townsend.
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Before the break, we talked with Rachel Cohen about the recent wave of legislation regarding people under 18 in labor. I wanted to take a step back and talk about the recent wave of legislation regarding people under 18 in labor. And look at the role child labor has had in America throughout history. So, I made a call. My name is. English and I have two titles. I am the executive director of the Organization of American Historians also an affiliate faculty member at Indiana University in the history department. - Bette's expertise is in labor. So I asked her to paint a picture of what child labor in the country was like starting in the 19th century. So when we talk about what is it like in the 1800s, it's really sort of two different worlds that are demarcated by, in many ways, by the Civil War. through the first decades of the... 1800s, especially in the Northern US, we start to see a shift taking place.
Increasingly, that shift is moving away from family and household-based agricultural labor, by and large. To more market-oriented and industrial production. And along with that comes wage labor becoming the norm. So industrial production, and especially in New England, we're talking about things like shoe factories and textile factories and watch factories. Those will begin drawing significant numbers of wage earners and included among those children into factories. What we see happening after the Civil War is people start plowing down that track much, much more aggressively. And we see much, much more industrialization. We see more urbanization. That we see child labor really becoming ubiquitous. In the decades after the Civil War--
And then through the first decades of the 20th century, there's this massive surge, as I mentioned, industrialization, growths of cities. Immigration that will help fuel this industrial growth. And kids in this very heady mix are working virtually everywhere by the turn of the century. We're talking about Kids in some cases, you know, younger than 10 years old. Working in what I think we would consider today. Really dangerous industrial jobs in textile factories and coal mines manufacturing glass in food canneries but they're also doing Things like picking produce, right, as you know, kind of migrant laborers. They're in city tenements manufacturing piece goods. They're rolling cigars. Of jobs in cities that we wouldn't necessarily think of today. Pin boys, for example, in bowling alleys, setting up pins after you knocked it down. Literally kids would sit there and then they would set the pins up when you got done so you could do your next bowl.
They're working on the streets, they're peddlers, they're newsies, they're messengers. - Interestingly, industrialization is looked to after the Civil War as a way to kind of save the wrecked post-war, post-emancipation economy. And child labor is closely, closely tied to that. It's so interesting because I think one of the things that kind of struck me as I was researching... For this is really realizing children have been working in America since its inception. Like of course with like chattel slavery, children were in fields, children were doing work, but it really was widespread. Throughout the country. Yeah, that's right. You know, and one of the things about what is today the United States and, you know, in the colonial period was...
Colonies were land rich and labor poor, right? So everybody was working. And sometimes that was a child who was integrated into a family or a household economy, but there are lots of different ways that kids are working. And as you said, and there's kind of this spectrum of, you know, we might want to think about it as a spectrum of freeness, right? In which children are working. We have those who are enslaved and child slavery. We have indentured servitude, apprenticeships, you know, where kids are getting sort of on the job training, but they're working. You know, again, within the context of sort of a household economy, you have this sense that kids work in those households and doing certain tasks to prepare them for what they're going to be doing for the rest of their lives. Right? So for girls, that was things like learning how to sew and how to make food and you know for boys it often meant how to plow a field and how to tend livestock.
Or how to mind the family shop, right? So there were lots of different ways that kids were working, but what ends up happening though, is that we see a cultural shift, right? In the way that people think about this work. For the Civil War, child labor was really seen as an expected and accepted aspect of everyday life. There really wasn't sort of a question about child labor. And again, within the context of a family economy, all the members of a household are expected to contribute to the economic wellbeing of that family unit. But by the time we're talk. About in the latter decades of the 1800s into the early 1900s.
Especially middle and upper class families living in cities, they're not relying on their kids' labor anymore to support the family economy. But there are still many poor working class families, farming families as well, where children and their labor power are vital and valuable resources to keep a family economy afloat. - When did we start to see early reform efforts. The biggest, you know, swell of reform efforts really happens again in this moment that we're talking about at the turn of the last century. 1890, for example, the US Census Bureau found that children employed in industrial jobs had increased to over 1.1 million kids working in industrial jobs. And that was a threefold increase between
between 1870 and then into the turn of the century. It was when this crush of youngsters began working, and again, not just working, but more and more kids visibly working in what were seen as exploitative and dangerous conditions, that child labor came to be recognized as a really alarming fact of modern America, right, that needed to be addressed. And groups calling for child labor reform perceived the new kinds of Work that kids were doing as fundamentally different from and unhealthy in a way that work for example on a farm wasn't. What we're seeing happen at the turn of the century is there's a child labor reform movement that really comes into being, but it's focused almost exclusively on kids that are working in industrial settings.
Or in urban settings. Organized labor had actually been a vocal opponent of child labor since the early 19th century. Back to when we were discussing earlier, some of the first textile factories, for example, in Massachusetts. That's where we're seeing organized labor rallying and trying to get child labor laws passed to keep kids out of those factories. The first piece of child labor legislation was passed in Massachusetts in 1836. And you see drips and drabs, those laws spreading to other places and becoming more and more and more stringent. But it's really again, not until the turn of the century that we begin to see a much, much more concerted effort. You still have unions as part of the... That child reform effort. Unions are largely advancing an economic argument, again, about the depression of wages that happens when children are in the workforce.
So get, you know, what we might think of as sort of middle class reformers that focus Their attention more on sort of moralistic and humanitarian type of arguments, right? This is inherently exploitative that children, they're not just little adults, right? That they are in a different kind of moment of development and they need protection. And so we see a different kind of reform effort taking place. What's the role of education in all of this? Because, you know, compulsory education was not always something that existed in the United States. How did education and the way that's changed in the United States factor into all of this?
this? It's interesting because a lot of the child labor laws, it's not just about restricting who can work, but it's also a lot of that legislation also focused then on compulsory education at the same time. So it's not just about pulling kids out of the workforce, but it's about giving them an alternative. And so, you know, you see, again, through this sort of moment when we see the most robust. Child labor reform efforts happening, the child labor legislation really going hand in hand with compulsory education laws and putting into place the kinds of systems that we think of today where if you know a youngster wants to get a job they have to prove how old they are, they have to prove
on to school a certain amount of time. And keep in mind, like some of these regulations were, today we would think of as pretty pathetic. It was like, you have to go to school for 15 weeks out of the year, something like that, right? But even that was a huge step. Just being able to say that education is the more important thing for a childhood than is industrial work. And this of course is very fraught, right? Because many families Do need the wages that those kids will bring in. Something that's interesting, you know, we're talking a lot about the, about the North and you know, by that I mean sort of the swath from New England through the Midwest. But you know, it's also at this time That in the South, you're beginning to see an upswing in industrial development, again, with that idea that--
industry is going to help revive the regional economy. And what ends up happening is that business and political leaders in the South start to position their states as industry friendly, right? It's the alternative. To these places where child labor laws and other kinds of labor protections are being put into place. So come here, right? Come here and invest your dollars. Come to North Carolina. Come to South Carolina. It feels like a mirror of the right to work versus like strong union presence. That we see now. - Yeah, you know, and there was a lot of that. Come here, we don't have unions here. We don't have child labor laws here. We don't have, we don't have, we don't have. We're friendly to business. And so, you know, what we see is child labor proliferating across the South at the same time that you're seeing this surge in child labor reform in other places. And so, you know, capital is moving. Capital is being invested in these places.
Is where restrictions are less. Having said that, as that happens, then, much like what happened in in the north and the northeast and the Midwest, local state and regional anti-child labor organizations will form, right? And so you begin to have sort of homegrown advocates in those places that That are really instrumental at the end of the day in securing passage of child labor laws in the early 1900s. - When did we see that shift from state by state laws and regulations to a more national scale for all of this? So that begins to happen kind of interestingly, you know, right at the beginning of the 1900s. As late as 1902, no southern state has a child labor law. And it's this lack of uniformity among state labor laws that highlights the fact that child--
of labor is a national issue. That is national in scope. It calls for a concerted and coordinated nationwide effort. In 1904, an organization called the National Child Labor Committee is formed. Is a kind of a coalition of all of these different state, local, regional reform groups. And so the National Child Labor Committee, you know, again, we'll draw on this national constituency and focus specifically on a few different things, raising public awareness about the employment of children that was top on the list, but then also to lobby for to advocate for the passage of child labor regulations and compulsory education law. So again, those things are going hand in hand. And they do this in a very visible way. They'll do these very kind of punch you in the gut, written and.
Photographic exposes. This is where the National Child Labor Committee hires Louis Hein, who I think a lot of people, if they don't know him, they know his pictures. Him and he travels the country. He does this far-reaching kind of photographic archive of children at work, you know, everywhere. From the cranberry bogs in Maine to oyster canneries on the Gulf Coast. And he's taking these indelible images of children working, bobbin boys in textile factories standing on these whirling machines in bare feet, breaker boys covered in coal dust, separating... Debris in coal mines, but also children who are maimed, who are disfigured. They've lost fingers and limbs and their shoulders are hunched and their spines are... Are curved and their eyesight is bad. And so this photojournalism of Lewis Hine and the written reports of National Child Labor Committee
investigators, this will really thrust the issue of child labor into the national spotlight in the political conversation. I want to fast forward a little bit to 1938, and that's when the Fair Labor Standards Act was signed. Can you talk about what that did in regards to child labor? Labor and also how did we get there? So the Fair Labor Standards Act is, and it's really the act that we still, that still regulates child labor in the United States. So it was passed in 1938. It was a New Deal, right? It was part of the New Deal legislation that's passed. Well, it does a number of things, but in the context of child labor, it bans the employment of children under the age of 16. Simply in mining and manufacturing industries engaged in interstate commerce. It will come to be expanded. In 1949--
And for example, it will be amended so that it will include commercial agriculture. But this really sets a base for how and in what context kids from a certain age can or cannot be employed. 16 as that sort of demarcation between what is considered child labor and what is not considered child labor. You know, it didn't just magically happen, right? There was sort of this buildup and a lot of it goes back to the National Child Labor Committee and the efforts that they made. In 1906, the first law is introduced into Congress by Senator Beveridge of Indiana, and so it comes to be called the Beveridge Bill. Will ban the interstate transportation and sale of goods produced by companies employing children. The age demarcation in that was 14.
It was lower, right? And it got a lot of attention and interest but kind of died on the vine, right? It never resulted in anything. Having said that, though, it did... Created a situation in which child labor was seen to be as this key issue and something that had to be considered and documented. And so in 1912, the US Children's Bureau is established. The beverage bill then will also be the basis of the first federal child labor law, and that's the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act. And that was passed in 1916, so about a decade after the beverage bill. Bridge Bill was introduced. And similarly, it will ban interstate transportation and sale of goods produced by children. It was made into law. A conservative Supreme Court, however, will declare it unconstitutional two years later.
In 1918. But this isn't the end. We sort of see these, you know, in fits and starts. 1919, for example, another act is introduced into Congress as part of a revenue act, kind of a different strategy. To try to levy an additional tax on goods produced by children. So a different kind of an end around, right, to try to, you know, to limit children being employed. That was passed. It was called the Child Labor Tax Act. Supreme Court again declares it unconstitutional in three years later at this time in 1922. And so then attention shifts to securing a constitutional amendment that would give Congress explicit constitutional authority to regulate child labor. It was approved by Congress in 1924 and sent to the states. But the states failed to ratify. So these were the steps kind of leading up to fair labor.
Standards act. Really the nail in the coffin though for child labor is the Great Depression. And leading up to that by the early 1920s, we have some things already happening where we see a decline in child labor. State labor laws and compulsory education laws are beginning to have a measurable impact. New technologies in lots of industries are making the work previously done by children obsolete. And then again, ultimately, you know, the onset of the Great Depression Pulls so many adults out of the world Force and makes you work so hard to find that it really becomes impossible to defend. Employing children when you have unemployment in the double digits for adults, right? And, you know, in, you know, Shutting down and high unemployment and poverty and all the things that came along with it and then it's same time with the New Deal, by the time the Roosevelt administration is in place, that
Legislation is embraced much more than it had been in the past. So a law like the Beverage Bill, right, which in 1906 just died on the vine, that essentially passed in a different form in a couple of different scenarios. 1933, the National Industrial Recovery Act was passed. It included provisions that ultimately would be codified then in the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. Can you talk about the compromises that were made to get the F.L.
Essay passed. Like, I mean, anyone who's, I mean, we can watch the debt ceiling debate right now and see that when when it comes to legislation, people people are trying to make sacrifices. What were the sacrifices that we saw in that piece of legislation? So one of the important one of the biggest sacrifices carve outs, you know, that happened with the Fair Labor Standards Act was that two big groups were not covered. People working in agriculture and people working in domestic service. Mmm, that sounds black to me. Oh, ding ding ding ding ding ding! Yes, exactly! And the reason for that was because in order for this law to pass, Southern Democrats had to be brought on board. port. It's who were the two largest groups of employees in the South in many of those congressional districts, people working in domestic service and people working in agriculture.
So and it's been, you know, it's been a real slog. You know, we still we, you know, today we're still seeing these really incredible debates around sort of federal protections for people working in what would be, you know, at that point in time in the 1930s. Is quote unquote domestic service, right? Caretakers, people that work in various capacities in private homes. All of that is still happening. Then of course, agriculture, you know, and progressively there have been protections added to FLSA to cover agricultural workers. But again, that wasn't part of the fabric of the initial law. And so, and it, and over time, the Fair Labor Standards Act was actually one of the very last of the kind of body of New Deal legislation that's passed, right? Where you have this very activist. Setting norms and standards for work, for conditions under which people can be employed.
So it becomes harder and harder and harder from that point forward to get. Not only new laws passed, but even to amend existing statutes. So, that's the history of child labor in the U.S. What are these changes in policy telling us about the state of the economy? Support for the weeds comes from Hydro. Finding the time to exercise is the best way to do it. Can be hard. But with the HydroRower, finding time for a 20-minute full body workout can be a piece of cake. Hydro is a state of the art, low impact home rowing machine that's actually designed by rowers. Hydro caters to all fitness levels and their classes are taught by Olympians and world class athletes alike. Eric Maxwell from the business side of things here at Vox got to try it out. Here's what he thought.
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Host of MSNBC's The Katie Fang Show, joins me on my podcast, Stay Tuned with Preet, to News from Trump's trial. The episode is out now. Search and follow Stay Tuned with Preet wherever you get your podcasts. This is the weeds and... Talking about child labor with historian Beth English. We just went through the history. Surrounding the Fair Labor Standards Act and what the legislation says about child labor. Now it's time to talk about the current restrictions and how they were developed. - You know, a lot of that is set in legislation. You know, there are certain categories of jobs, you know, things that we would think of as, you know, broadly speaking, industrial.
Construction that are, again, codified in law as being essentially too dangerous for youngsters to be working in. But there is this whole kind of broad swath of types of employment where youth are employed all the time. But even in those kinds of workplaces, I'm thinking my nephew lifeguards during the summer, he's a swimmer and so that's his summer job, he lifeguards. But even with that, if you're below a certain age, you have to have, and sometimes this State to state, but you have to have on file a work permit that states certain things, you know, in, you know, ages and parental consent and and a number of different things. So when we think of this debate about like, oh, well, you know, child labor isn't so bad because it was just babysitting or it's just, you know, working at the ice cream parlor in the summer or whatever it might be.
The laws are set out in a way to protect children from, again, what the state defines as inherently dangerous situations. Both to, you know, sort of physical well-being, but also to developmental well-being, right? There are all kinds of, all kinds of studies. Out there that talk about, you know, the ability of, you know, people under the age of 18, for example, to be able to make decisions, right, to be able to have pulse control. All of those things also play into performance on the job, right, and how they can and can't make decisions in a, you know, what would be considered a dangerous workplace. Likewise, you know, development in the context of Physical development, right? When you think of a job site, I'm thinking of construction, for example, hauling pallets of things, right? Doing heavy lifting.
A growing body can't sustain that as a repetitive task. So it's those kinds of things that laws are trying to, trying to keep kids out of workplaces where those things are happening. - So I wanna get to the economy piece. Of this because unemployment is low, inflation is up. I mean, I was just at Trader Joe's the other day and grapes were nearly $6 if not more. And I don't think child labor will ever be the answer to our economic woes, but it also feels like, to a degree, people are throwing things at the wall and seeing what's-- And I'm wondering how much of this push we're seeing right now is because of the state of the economy.
- I think you're absolutely right. I do think that a lot of this is the fact that the post pandemic labor market is incredibly tight. And so it really shouldn't come as a huge surprise. I mean, it is a surprise that it's children that we're going to, but it shouldn't come as a huge surprise that employers are looking for additional labor sources and not just additional labor sources, but additional labor sources that they can employ to keep wages low. I think that's something to think about, that not being able to find workers in certain industries and sectors is also a product of the wages that are being paid, right?
To be able to attract more applicants for those jobs, you need to pay better wages. And that's not always the go-to for this. And likewise, I think we also need to kind of think about the strength of organized labor, kind of coming back to that thread to pull that a little bit. As I said, historically, a strong union movement has led to, across the board, better working conditions, better pay, legislated labor standards. And we're right now seeing a surge in labor organizing in a lot of different, you know, both in terms of sort of like quantitatively, like more and more and more people.
Trying to join unions, more strikes, but also in new and different places. And sometimes those are places where what we would consider adolescents are working. Think Starbucks. Yeah. A lot of service, kind of service-oriented retail. And this also is a threat to the status quo of kind of anything goes, right? And so it's kind of a heavy mix, right? Where we have the tight labor market, we have the incentive for businesses to keep. Labor costs down and for them to keep their profits rolling in at similar levels. And then also the, you know, the, the ops.
In labor organizing and labor actions. - One thing that keeps kind of popping up again and again in my head is that for the entirety of this country, there's been an underclass. Like the South and much of America was built on unpaid slave labor. And then I think of the immigrant children that were working in these industrial factories. And a lot of this is immigrant and migrant children. Again, like it's just it feels so cyclical That's right. And you know, and that's a that's a great way to think about it this conversation that we're having is Cyclical in a lot of ways we've seen this movie before right the least stable in the economy in terms of you know folks who are most
vulnerable in many ways, and most in need of some kind of gainful employment, those folks are going to be drawn into jobs that are often the lowest paying and have the worst conditions. You know, something though, interestingly, that the sort of historical record shows, is that economic growth, based on this kind of approach, right? To keep trying to find and tap, for lack of a better word, vulnerable labor sources. This actually is not, in the big picture, good for the economy, right? When child labor was utilized, when wages are kept exceptionally low, those Kinds of industries do not ultimately help the economy or
or help those marginalized and disadvantaged workers. It will inhibit widespread economic growth and mobility. And then we're seeing what we ultimately end up seeing. And again, this is the historical record kind of shows us over and over again, that as... Our labor becomes a focal point of economic boosterism and economic growth pegged to the lowest labor standards. Creates a race to the bottom, right? Where everybody, you know, the entire sort of labor force is going to potentially be dragged down. - And I also think of, I mean, I was so deferential to authority as a kid. Like I know a lot of my friends were like, I'm rebellious, you can't tell me what to do. The one who's like, If an adult said to do it, I'm gonna do it. And you know, you're not gonna, like they don't know how to navigate this. - That's exactly right.
You think about, you know, there's been a lot written on the nexus between the surge in child labor and also the surge in unaccompanied minor migrant children, right, or migrant youths, and they're not in a position. To speak out, by virtue of their age, I mean, exactly what you're saying. And if a youngster has an adult telling you to do something in the context of a workplace, by and large, you're gonna do it. But then add in the additional layers of you may not have a guardian who is there to speak up for you if something bad happens. You need the job, you need the money to support yourself or to support a network. Work of people that you may be living with.
Be a family group, right? - I wanna kind of pull on that thread a little bit because in this conversation, and I think as a lot of people think about it, we're thinking from the side of the corporation where it's like, wow, what greed. But when it comes to these children, a lot of them are operating out of need. And I like, you're like, these kids should not be working these jobs. Like this is dangerous, but they need the money and resources whether to support themselves or their families home and I'm trying to wrap my head around what it looks like, you know, because it's not like these children are able to say like, Okay, I'm going to be a barista at Starbucks, Okay, I'm gonna answer phones at the local gym, or, Okay, I'm going to be a lifeguard.
Yeah, I just... it's very difficult. Yeah, you know, and I think we can, you know, again, kind of go back-- To the historical record as a guide for some of this. And, you know, I don't want to make a case that, you know. It happened in the past and we're just seeing a repeat of that now, but I think there are some trends that are quite similar and maybe help us, you know, give us a frame of reference to kind of think about some of these things. And, you know, so when you think of that, you know, the kind of greed, the greed versus The need dynamic, right? And, you know, on the one side, you do have businesses that by and large, you know, there are some outliers to this, but you know, at the end of the day, amount of regulation and the lowest labor costs, right? That's, that's just part of kind of part of the way that they work. But need, family need, individual need is a real consideration. And again, thinking about the historical record, you know, and the family wage, it kind of goes back, you know, to a conversation that
Kind of turns around that. If we look, for example, to the US South at the turn of the century, legislating-- children out of the textile mills there was an absolute non-starter. And it wasn't just because you have a very active and successful business lobby, you know, and business interests that keep that, that block that. You have families who literally could not feed themselves if their children were not working in the mills, right? You know, and so on one hand, you have mill owners who champion the employment that they're giving in their textile factories as a means of what they call uplift and a path out of poverty, right, for otherwise destitute families. But the system as a whole of fun. Functionally draw in children because of the need to sustain household income.
And so you have this, you know, it's sort of this system, the system where the family wage system is a key factor that keeps wages down and keeps wages for adults at poverty level, but at the same time, You know, fuels this relentless cycle where child labor is an economic necessity. You know, and that kind of takes us, I think, into a different strain or a different kind of threat. Of conversation that maybe I'm not the best person necessarily to talk about. But you know, that begs the question of are there broader structural social safety net kinds of things that we need to be And policies that we need to be putting into place. Be, you know, I mean, there are so many different things that we can think of immigration in terms of economic policies in terms of childcare supports, you know, you name it, but
Do we need to take this conversation out of the realm of employer and employee and make Move it into the realm of what individuals should expect from the state and what the state can provide as a social safety net. The question that pops up again and again in my mind is what do these changes in child labor regulations say about the current state of working conditions in the U.S. as a whole? This reflecting back to us. Kind of counterintuitively, in some ways, what this speaks to is the strength of the economy. Now because unemployment is so low, wages are high. You know, again, some of that is part of sort of ripple effects of the post pandemic labor market. And then also thinking
The strength or lack thereof of mechanisms by which workers can vocalize and, you know, and facilitate change in their workplaces. And so, you know, we talked a lot about organized labor and the role that historically a strong union movement has in the world. Played. But you know, the reality is even though we're seeing this surge in labor organizing, it's About 11% of the workforce and that's public and private sector is in a union right now, right? And if you look just at private sector, you… In membership, it's something like 6%, right? So we're talking about a very small fraction of people that are actually covered by.
And have the protection of union contracts and union affiliations. And I think that that's important too. - What do you make of the legislation that's rolling back these child labor regulations? How do you see this playing out? - So I think we can think about this. In a couple of different ways. We can think of this as a kind of tried and true strategy that states historically locales have used to try to attract business investments, right? This idea that we are making it easier for you to do business here in x, y, and z ways and that may be rolling back child labor. So that's one thing. But I think we also should sort of
Think about this in a broader perspective and a little bit more collectively, that one of the things that I see playing out is that the state level rollbacks of child labor that are happening are not just meant to bring in more business into places and make it easier to, you know, for businesses to find workers, but they're meant to change. Away and ultimately unwind federal labor laws. You know, generally speaking, state Laws can be more stringent than federal, but not the other way around. And so as state laws are... Becoming less and less restrictive. State child labor laws are becoming less and less restrictive. I could see this landing in the courts. And potentially setting up a Supreme Court case that challenges FLSA and potentially declares it unconstitutional, right? That's very reminiscent of Dobbs, of the Dobbs situation.
It's kind of a similar, I mean, I don't want to, you know, compare apples to oranges, but it is in some ways a similar strategy, right? Where if you already have in states a condition in which certain laws exist, and you can then have the federal law that is kind of tampered. Those down in some ways, right? Once that federal law goes away, well, it's off to the races. Another thing... That we could maybe think about is that while this may or may not end up winding its way through to the Supreme Court, we could also see State rollbacks of child labor legislation, creating a situation where looser child... Labor standards become so common across the states that Congress itself will amend FLSA and other labor laws. So that, you know, it won't necessarily be a sort of spectacular thing, you know, thinking of dogs, right? Where the Supreme Court, you know, makes a decision.
And then a federal norm basically goes away, right? It could be something where Congress itself sees-- It actually is advantageous to roll back and to rethink and to rewrite FLSA and, you know, and other related laws. All right, Beth English, thank you so much for joining us on the Weeds. Today. It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me. That's all for us today. Thank you to Rachel Cohen and Beth English for joining us. Our producer is Sophie Lalonde. McFarland engineered this episode. Anuk Duso fact-checked it. Our editor, The editorial director is A.M. Hall, and I'm your host, John Glenn Hill. The Weeds is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network. You
Transcript generated on 2024-05-22.