Why isn’t rolling back child labor exploitation a higher priority for Democrats? | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey

Adam Johnson has written a righteous and right-on piece identifying the blatant hypocrisy among so-called “tough on crime” politicians who demand prison time for shoplifters, yet refuse to demand any jail time for corporate miscreants who illegally use child labor. Johnson is correct: the difference in attitudes demonstrates an unwarranted deference towards law-breaking corporations, and a notable ambivalence towards being tough on all crime.

Johnson was (rightly) provoked by news of the Biden administration’s latest announced plans for dealing with the scourge of exploitative child labor (which comes half a year after staggering pieces from The New York Times on the wide extent not only of migrant child labor in particular, but of injuries to migrant children illegally hired by companies). After all, the new plan appears to be more of the same old non-plan: more fines for corporations that engage in this immoral activity, even after years of experience have demonstrated, again and again, that too many companies see such fines as simply the price of doing business — or even as a slamming good deal in exchange for being able to underpay, injure, and otherwise exploit young workers.

I have to confess that the Times’s articles by Hannah Dreier on abuses of child migrant labor agitated me deeply when I first read them — I tried to express some of my outrage here — and the stories she recounted and the broader crisis described have continued to haunt me. This isn’t an issue with a lot of grey area, and what grey area there is (such as young undocumented workers helping to support their impoverished families in the U.S. or back home) is essentially irrelevant to the foundational question of whether or not the federal government should act in ways that actually eliminate both child exploitation and concomitant child workplace injuries.

The double standard that Johnson identifies in politicos’ attitude toward child labor is indeed glaring, and seems essential to point out if we are to ever see any movement on real punishments that would deter this immoral practice. If a thief should go to jail, then surely an employer who repeatedly illegally hires underage workers should as well, given the physical and emotional risks to the children and the inevitable power differential that makes it difficult for kids to stand up for themselves in the face of adult authority. But I’ve found myself befuddled in particular by Democrats’ resistance to taking a hard line on this issue. GOP politicians? I can understand Republican lack of concern just fine — the deference to business interests, the wish to undercut growing labor power as the economy nears full employment, the generalized lack of concern about child safety (witness the analogous lackadaisical attitude towards gun violence’s maiming and killing of American youth), the racism-informed not giving two shits about young undocumented workers in particular being injured on the job. Indeed, as Sonali Kolhatkar writes at In These Times, the GOP’s assault on children’s well-being and freedom reaches far beyond retrograde views on child labor:

Republicans claim they care about protecting children. But their actions speak louder than words: they have made it easier for mass shooters to kill children in schools, and they have attacked the rights of LGBTQ children to play sports, to use the bathrooms of their choice, to access gender-affirming care, and to learn about their community. They have barred children from learning accurate history about racism and white supremacy and unleashed police into schools in spite of evidence that school cops are targeting Black and Brown children.

So while child labor is on-brand for the GOP, the Democrats’ reluctance to act against it in a decisive fashion is harder to fathom — not only in light of the nauseating, freshly-reported details of what child labor means in America (kids not regularly attending school, getting maimed and even killed in jobs far better performed by adults) but also in view of the GOP’s recent spate of state-level policies actually doubling down on child labor by lowering age restrictions and broadening the range of dangerous jobs that children can work. From Iowa to Arkansas, the GOP has surveyed the state of America’s youth and determined that what they truly need is less protection, not more, from an economy ready to exploit them. Both morally and politically, it would seem that the ground has been set for meaningful action that would draw a line about what is acceptable in American society and what is not — showing that government can perform the basic function of protecting its most vulnerable citizens from harm while also wrong-footing a political opposition that seems to be phoning in its policy positions from the darkest days of the 19th century.

The logical inference here is that the Biden administration, and Democrats more generally, wish not to antagonize segments of the business community, and potentially be falsely blamed by the GOP for labor shortages and inflationary pressures should they press forward with legislation that would send economic exploiters of children to jail (Johnson reminds us that a Democratic bill earlier this year that would have imposed significant jail time for repeat child labor offenders ended up going nowhere). We can also infer that they consider these goals as more important that actually stopping the ongoing exploitation of child workers.

Yet even as a cynical political calculation, this really doesn’t make sense to me. Relatively few Americans are rooting for businesses like slaughterhouses and fast food chains to maintain the de facto right to hire kids in order to maintain their profit margins — and those who are mostly consist of those very businesses and a bunch of right-wing ideologues who, frankly, would never vote for Democrats under any circumstances. Moreover, insofar as the GOP effort to unleash child participation in the workforce is part of a strategy to undercut the labor power of adults, Democrats have a glaring interest in defending the rights of adult workers to be paid what they deserve and to block the retrograde “solution” of bringing in vulnerable kids as a sort of surplus workforce.

Beyond this, “some labor advocates worry [relaxation of child labor rules are] just the opening salvo to a broader attack on government safety rules,” as Rachel Cohen notes at Vox; from this perspective, pushing back against such egregiously backwards policies can help stop a larger right-wing assault on safety regulations more generally. And Democrats likewise have an interest in refuting the highly misleading and sanctimonious “parents’ rights” arguments in favor of child labor, which essentially hold that parents have an absolute interest in directing their children into whatever types of jobs and working hours they deem appropriate.

All of this adds up to child labor being exactly the sort of fight Democrats should pick — both as a matter of making good on the party’s identity as the defender of worker rights and fair labor practices, and as a way to highlight the moral black hole of GOP policies. Instead, there has been a lamentable decision here to pick no fights, to draw no bright lines on what feels to me like the ultimate bright line issue. In this sense, it feels drawn out of the same conflict-adverse well that characterizes much of contemporary Democratic strategy, from President Biden’s preference for countering the mass movement of GOP authoritarianism with a laser-like focus on marginal economic improvements, to the lack of a full-court press on pro-democracy measures that might at least throw into sharper relief the GOP’s reactionary turn against democracy. Yes, it is true that the House is controlled by the GOP and that the odds of meaningful child labor legislation passing are slim to none; but it is equally true that prioritizing this issue might rally public opinion and at a minimum prove a liability for the GOP going into the 2024 elections. Even short-term failure would cultivate long-term success, building public support for future legislation.

This also seems to be another example of the Democrats declining to engage directly with an emotionally charged issue out of self-defeating notions of decorum and overly-intellectualized notions of how politics works. We constantly see the GOP seeking the next hot-button issue that might not just mobilize but enrage its base — the cynically-constructed war on transgender people being perhaps the latest prominent example — to the point that it’s no exaggeration to say the party has become a movement based on the ever-increasing incitement of rage and desire for retribution against a host of identified enemies. It sometimes seems to me that the unbridled emotionality of the GOP has caused the Democrats to over-correct in the opposite direction, to over-emphasize politics as a realm of policy proposals and legislative progress, of decorum and calm, as opposed to a grand clash of values and identities. Yet there is a crucial difference between a party that incites negative, divisive emotions and even signals a comfort with any violence that might result, and a party that seeks to tap into righteous anger and idealism that might create popular pressure for meaningful, even structural change to the inequities of American life.

It is easy to imagine politicians like President Biden and senior Democratic leaders assuming a “this is just the way the world works” attitude towards child labor — without taking sufficient stock of the notion that the world might be made to work differently if the proper standards of morality and punishment were applied to the wealthy and powerful as well as to the poor. If you are not willing to use your political power to protect children, even it means courting a fight with powerful economic interests, then what exactly is your claim to deserve to hold that power? When talking about the reasons he ran for president, Joe Biden often speaks about a fight for the soul of America, a reference to the conflict between the GOP’s racist and authoritarian divisiveness and an alternative, contrasting vision for America. Biden has correctly identified the central political conflict of our times, at least in general terms; but what I fear that he and other sympathetic Democrats are missing is that the alternative vision to Trumpism can’t just be assumed, but must both be described in detail and actively implemented in practice. There is no conceivable path towards a truly just America that honors equality and opportunity but that also includes the continued exploitation of children so that fast food chains and meatpackers can pad their profits and thrill their shareholders.


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