In November last year, the Brazilian company JBS was at the center of a discovery that shocked the United States. Based on a complaint from the Secretary of Labor, the Department of Justice found that 31 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 were working in its meat processing plants in the states of Nebraska and Minnesota.
The investigation found that the outsourced cleaning company, contracted by JBS, used teenagers to perform dangerous tasks. A 13-year-old girl had burns due to the use of chemical products.
In the US, there is no general rule about the minimum age to start working. The decision is up to each state. Human rights researchers and activists find it difficult to act in the area due to a simple fact: there is a lack of reliable data to understand the size of the problem.
Eric Edmonds, a professor in the department of economics at Dartmouth University and an expert on the subject, told Brasil de Fato that “in 1971 the United States stopped collecting data that would allow us to say something about the problems of child labor in the USA. We don’t have estimates of the problem in the US, so we can’t say whether it’s increasing or decreasing.”
Edmonds also says that, for the same reason, it is difficult to know what types of work children and adolescents are most employed in the country, “although there is strong evidence that it would be in agriculture”.
Although it is not possible to state with certainty the size of the child labor force, the Association of Agricultural Workers Opportunity Programs in the United States believes that between 400,000 and 500,000 minors are working on farms in the country.
Republicans want fewer protections
But this is not a problem that concerns everyone. In states with legislatures dominated by Republicans, deputies are approving proposals that make it easier to hire younger and younger people, often for dangerous jobs, or make it more difficult to supervise.
:: The struggle of male and female workers so that children do not work ::
This was the case in Arkansas, where an approved law deregulated the hiring process for 14- to 15-year-olds in the state. Provided approval, these teens can be employed even without a parental consent.
“We opposed this law because children need more protection. Everything from the school day to not being put in dangerous situations,” says Laura Kellams, representative of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (AACF).
Laura explains that “this was another way we were protecting children and young people in our state. Everything was put on paper, so the young employee knew the rules, the parents knew the rules and the employer, who would be obliged to follow the rules, signed a paper stating that he knew what they were and that they would be followed”. The AACF was one of those who spoke out against the law in the state legislature.
The law, which was signed into law by Republican Governor Sarah Sanders, does not change rules related to child labor per se, but simply removes an important layer of protection and enforcement of existing rules.
Who is less interested in protecting children and young people?
“Well, funnily enough, nobody spoke in defense of this law in the House,” said Laura, “nobody went to a committee to speak because they needed this, no companies went there saying they wanted this, nobody was complaining about the permitting process. It was free, had one page, and the state typically responded within three days. So, interestingly enough, it’s hard to say who would benefit and why they wanted this law, because those people didn’t come forward to say why they wanted it.”
Arkansas, however, is not alone. In recent months, other states have passed laws that deregulate child labor, such as Iowa, New Jersey and New Hampshire.
:: In 20 years, 980 children and adolescents were rescued from degrading jobs in Brazil ::
The argument of some republicans is the lack of manpower in the country. With one of the lowest unemployment rates in history, companies in the United States simply cannot find workers. But Eric Edmonds thinks “this is dishonest. It has nothing to do with the lack of manpower.”
The researcher explains: “The Foundation for Government Accountability is funding these projects. It’s a Florida foundation that is immersed in the current ‘culture wars’. And this push against child labor laws is part of the culture war, not part of the job market. Have you ever heard an employer say, ‘you know what I need? I don’t need these super motivated and capable people who were born elsewhere, what I need most are 12 year old employees in my company’. I guarantee you that you will not find this argument, because this would be a person who would go bankrupt very quickly”.
The Foundation for Government Accountability lobbies on a range of conservative agendas. Among the flags presented on the foundation’s website is one called “Empowering Adolescents through the Work Force”. In advertisements, they characterize states with such protections as “Nanny States”.
Eric Edmonds believes that these agendas are successful among the most radical voters in the Republican party, and that is where one of the biggest problems lies. The American electoral system would be one of those responsible for the growing popularity of this type of proposal.
“When you have office, you don’t have to appeal to the majority of voters,” explains Edmonds, “you have to appeal to the most extreme voters in your party, who will show up to vote in the caucuses. Being able to shout about ‘nanny states’, however imprecise it may be, allows you to appeal to a certain type of Republican primary voter who will be there and who will vote for you, keeping you in office”.
However, the law change in Arkansas was widely publicized and criticized nationally. Laura Kellams is optimistic that this will make Republicans think twice about moving forward with similar proposals in other states.
“It didn’t get much public attention when the law was being appreciated”, Laura laments. “We tried to generate as much attention as possible, speak against it and explain to lawmakers why they should vote against it, but there wasn’t a huge popular outcry because people weren’t aware. But after it passed, it had a lot of prominence in the state, across the country and, of course, talking to you today, even in the world. So we hope this attention will make lawmakers think twice about whether they want their names linked to future erosions of child labor protections.”
Sought after by the Brasil de Fato report, the Foundation for Government Accountability has yet to make a statement. If so, this article will be updated.
Editing: Rodrigo Durão Coelho