Incredibly, there is a new effort afoot to allow more child labor in the U.S. The Economic Policy Institute reported earlier this month that “violations of child labor laws and proposals to roll back child labor protections are on the rise across the country,” including bills under consideration to allow young teenagers to work in meatpacking plants. The Biden administration is belatedly promising to step up enforcement, as it has become clear that employers violate child labor laws with impunity, and “children now are working hazardous jobs in every state and across industries,” “taking jobs in slaughterhouses, construction sites and commercial bakeries—positions that have long been off-limits to American children for nearly a century.”
But, as Tyler Walicek notes at Truthout, the problem is not just that the laws are being flouted, because plenty of exploitative child labor is already legal, and “enormous numbers of minors, many of them migrant children, are legally employed on U.S. farms, thanks to an underage-labor exemption unique to agriculture.” The Atlantic ran a disturbing expose several years ago on children as young as 10 or 11 who work in America’s tobacco fields. The New York Times recently reported that “in many parts of the country, middle and high school teachers in English-language learner programs say it is now common for nearly all their students to rush off to long shifts after their classes end.”
One would have assumed the debate about child labor to be long since settled. Children deserve to focus on playing, learning, and developing. They shouldn’t be sent down mines and into meatpacking plants! But astonishingly, there are still those who justify sending children to work. The libertarian Foundation for Economic Education even published an article called “Let The Kids Work,” claiming (quite seriously) that working down a mine is an “exciting life” that children will like because they enjoy “danger,” and it’s more interesting than sitting at a desk. The libertarian economist Bryan Caplan makes a similar argument in The Case Against Education, arguing that school sucks so much that for many kids, a job would be better. (I co-authored a review of the book in Current Affairs, and pointed out that this is an argument for making school better, not for sending children to work in Amazon warehouses.)
Some libertarians don’t see any philosophical problem with sending kids to work generally. (Although note that it’s not clear they would send their own children to work in meatpacking plants, and usually what we’re talking about in practice is whether poor children will be sent to work.) But today, there is an additional justification offered for relaxing the child labor laws, which is that we have something referred to as a “labor shortage” in the United States: there just aren’t enough people to work certain jobs. Axios reports that “the bills are largely in response to the current hot jobs market, with employers posting an elevated number of openings but struggling to fill positions.”
Now, you should always beware of the term “labor shortage,” because it’s a kind of propaganda concept. When we say that there aren’t enough workers to “fill certain positions,” what we’re really saying is that there aren’t enough people willing to accept the terms on which employers are offering jobs. For instance, in Ohio, the state restaurant association has said that most restaurant operators in the state are “still short between ten and 20% of the staff” and “teens could help fill that gap.” But an important question is: what would that gap look like if you doubled the wages being offered? Of course, the restaurant association would balk, and claim that such an insane idea would bankrupt them (they always say this when you propose raising wages). But if you’re willing to offer better terms, you can get more workers. It’s a labor market. If you’re not able to buy what you want in it (labor), it’s not because there aren’t enough people, it’s because you’re not offering the market rate. I’ve written about this before in the context of alleged “teacher shortages.” The “shortage” exists in part because the job conditions are shitty and not enough people want to accept them.
TIME reported that one of the companies recently found to have committed serious breaches of child labor laws was employing children in “hazardous jobs cleaning equipment like skull splitters, brisket saws, and bone cutters.” The company also “paid investors a $297 million dividend in 2020,” which TIME noted dwarfs the cost of the fine they received for violating the law, making employing child laborers the economically rational thing to do (Milton Friedman might argue it was actually the corporation’s obligation to maximize shareholder value by exploiting kids.) The company might well argue that they have a hard time getting people other than kids to take dangerous underpaid work. But the response should be: tough. If you want workers to do a job, you have to offer them terms they will accept. If you can’t get the workers, it’s your job as an employer to change the terms. Here at Current Affairs, I wouldn’t whine about a “worker shortage” if I couldn’t find anyone to write for ten cents an article. I’d realize that I wasn’t paying enough. The shortage is a shortage at the given terms, meaning that the very concept has a status quo bias that accepts employers’ insistences that they have a right to get workers at the rates they prefer.
The “worker shortage” argument becomes even more absurd when we remember something called the border, and the fact that even as people are complaining that there aren’t enough workers, we’re simultaneously deploying physical violence to keep workers out of the country. Earlier this year, Joe Biden expanded a program “allowing the administration to quickly expel people from Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti who illegally cross into the country from Mexico.” Biden has even recently made the (both immoral and irrational) decision to deport Russians fleeing conscription by Vladimir Putin. (Immoral because it could be sending them to their deaths, and irrational because it’s literally handing over new recruits for Russia’s war machine.)
This supposed need for workers comes at a time when we are literally physically expelling workers. Why would you deport people who want nothing more than to stay in this country and make a livelihood here? The situation in the contemporary U.S. is pure insanity: people are trying to send children to work, while handcuffing and shipping out adults who are looking for jobs. Just open the border! Let people in! It’s incredible the kind of double cruelty here. It’s cruel to ruin a childhood with immiserating labor, and it’s cruel to ruin an adult’s life by tearing them away from their family. (There was much outrage at Donald Trump for his family separation policy, but too many liberals forget—or don’t care—that all immigration enforcement involves family separation.)
U.S. immigration policy has deadly consequences. The Biden administration has infamously followed Trump in refusing to allow asylum-seekers to cross into the U.S. to apply for asylum, thus forcing them to stay in dangerous Mexican border towns where they can be “targets of a vicious criminal business that kidnaps them and can torture them for weeks, extorting thousands of dollars of ransom from their relatives over the phone.” Just this week, dozens of migrants in a crowded Mexican detention center suffocated and burned to death in a fire, after guards refused to let them out to escape. Earlier this week, frustrated by the U.S. government’s useless scheduling app for asylum application appointments, hundreds of Venezuelans tried to cross the border and were turned back by force. Reuters quoted 18-year-old Camila Paz, who was “sobbing heavily” and pleaded: “Please, we just want to get in so we can help our families…So I can have a future and help my family.” We could give Camila that future at zero cost. Supposedly there is a labor shortage. And yet instead we use brutal force to send her and many others like her back to face poverty and violence.
Now, we should be careful about arguing that immigrants should be allowed to plug the “shortage,” because as I explained, the shortage presumes keeping the jobs shitty. In desperate refugees, we might easily find a population that (like children) does not have the ability to bargain for better conditions, and would therefore gladly take whatever was on offer. Really, many of the positions that would only be accepted by undocumented people or children should not exist; they should be safer and better-paid. Sometimes, those arguing for fewer restrictions on immigration make the (misguided, in my view) argument that undocumented people’s jobs are “jobs Americans won’t do.” Well, if they won’t do them, it’s probably because they’re inhumane, and citizens have more of an ability to walk away and demand something that meets certain basic conditions.
So, no, we shouldn’t just fix our “shortage” through unrestricted immigration. We should open the borders and raise the minimum wage. And we should keep child labor prohibited. All of this is possible. There are plenty of people who want to work, and God knows employers make enough money to where they can share it fairly with workers—remember, profits haven’t been this high in 70 years. We need to understand that when people claim there’s a shortage of workers that needs to be fixed through exploiting kids, they’re not only advocating something hideously cruel, but they’re trying to get us to accept the propagandistic framing that shitty jobs must inevitably be shitty. It’s not true. Employers have a choice, but it’s clear that they will offer the worst and most exploitative conditions they can, unless they are forced to do otherwise.
I debunk pro-child labor arguments at greater length in my new book Responding to the Right: Brief Replies to 25 Conservative Arguments.