Labor Law Rollbacks Across the US Put Children in Harm’s Way
August 31, 2023
By Taylor Fulton
For the last 24 years, the US Fair Labor Standards Act has established federal laws to protect the educational opportunities of minors and prohibit their employment in jobs that are detrimental to their health or well-being. This year those standards are being rolled back by legislatures in at least 10 states nationwide.
The latest set of bills introduced across state legislatures could weaken child labor standards on prohibitions ranging from working hours to hazardous work. Notably, the bills come as the extent of child labor infringements across the United States has been increasingly brought to light.
Bills introduced in Minnesota and Iowa would roll back requirements prohibiting children between the ages of 14 and 17 from working in industries such as construction, demolition and manufacturing. A Missouri bill would extend working hours for teens between the ages of 16 and 17 from 7:00pm to 9:00pm. Meanwhile, lawmakers in Nebraska have introduced legislation that would allow children between the ages of 14 and 17 to be paid a wage of $9.00 – $1.50 less than the state’s minimum wage of $10.50 per hour. Several similar bills have already been enacted into law. In Arkansas rollbacks on federal child labor standards are already in place, with policymakers removing requirements that children verify proof of age and provide parental consent to work. In New Hampshire, children as young as 14 can bus tables where alcohol is served.
From a human rights perspective, these laws and the trends they encourage deal a detrimental blow to corporate and civil society efforts to embed respect for human rights throughout company operations and value chains. First, these laws undercut internationally recognized human rights standards on child labor. The ILO, for example, defines child labor as any work that is: 1) mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and/or 2) interferes with their schooling by: depriving them of the opportunity to attend school; obliging them to leave school prematurely; or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work. Laws that allow children to work on construction sites, in close proximity to alcohol or work late on school nights contradict these long established precedents.
Second, lifting child labor prohibitions creates, and potentially exacerbates, barriers to the realization of other fundamental human rights outlined in the UN Declaration on Human Rights. Extending working hours for teens directly affects their right to education (UDHR, Article 26), as well as their right to childhood (UDHR, Article 25.2). Permitting children to access and work in male-dominated industries, such as construction and meatpacking, poses serious moral, personal and safety hazards, including the potential for discrimination and gender-based harassment (UDHR, Article 2), risks to the right to life and security of person (UDHR, Article 3), and unjust working conditions (UDHR, Article 23.1). Moreover, where children experience adverse human rights harms, they may lack the communication skills or understanding of their human rights to report workplace issues to their employers, resulting in violations of the right to effective remedy (UDHR, Article 8). These risks are even more severe for the most vulnerable workers, like migrant children, whom take on hazardous work out of economic desperation and to prevent deportation.
As the US Department of Labor continues to crackdown on the increase in child labor infringements, companies should remain abreast of these legal changes and establish appropriate safeguards to curb irreparable harm to the next generation. Companies can get started by:
- Updating and enforcing corporate policies, such as human rights commitments, codes of business ethics, and supplier codes of conduct, to account for human rights risks to children. This includes identifying children as a rightsholder impacted by corporate operations and aligning existing policies with international human rights and labor standards, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as a matter of best practice.
- Including risks to children as a salient human rights risk in due diligence activities, such as human rights impact assessments and regulatory due diligence assessments. In doing so, companies can acknowledge and identify potential harms to children, assess the robustness of existing processes to prevent those harms, and develop or update those processes as part of long-term strategies to address, prevent and remediate harms to children where they occur, in alignment with the UN Guiding Principles and the Children’s Rights and Business Principles.
- Identifying opportunities to engage meaningfully with business partners to emphasize the importance of curbing harmful labor practices where they occur. This includes building the capacity of suppliers, sub-contractors and their workers to identify risks and harms to children where they occur and use appropriate channels to report those risks to relevant authorities. Companies should also seek to identify relevant trainings, such as the ILO’s eLearning tools on child labor, that can be easily disseminated to internal functions and suppliers as part of annual trainings and refreshers. Companies may also consider championing or engaging in public policy advocacy on common sense labor standards reform.
If you have any questions about how Article One is working to advance children’s rights in corporate human rights strategies, please contact the Article One team at email@example.com.