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Catholics concerned as U.S. child labor violations increase and lawmakers seek to weaken laws

A file photo shows a mural depicting child labor. Catholics and labor leaders are vocing concern that young workers are all too easily exploited in a difficult economy, as some state legislators move to weaken child labor laws. (OSV News photo/Shanshan Chen, Reuters)

By Kimberley Heatherington

(OSV News) — Not all children filling many vacant U.S. jobs are working the drive-thru window, pushing carts or helping on the family farm — jobs typically associated with teenagers learning responsibility, along with useful business and personal skills.

According to recently published reports and investigations, minors are toiling in some of the most dangerous conditions in American industry, such as construction, slaughterhouses and assembly lines.

Catholics and labor leaders OSV News spoke with voiced concern that children are all too easily exploited in the U.S. economy, where some lawmakers are looking to loosen further restrictions on child labor in response to companies clamoring for workers to fill vacancies.

“Even responsible adults who have been trained periodically are at risk of injury in this kind of an environment,” shared Clayton Sinyai, executive director of the Catholic Labor Network. “Certainly children do not belong there.”

Sinyai referred to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Feb. 17 announcement that an investigation found more than 100 children were working for a contractor cleaning equipment in meat-packing facilities in eight different states.

“It’s shocking to see things like that in the 21st century,” Sinyai said.

In one of the largest child labor cases in its history, the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division discovered 102 children ages 13 to 17 were employed by Kieler, Wisconsin-based Packers Sanitation Services Inc., PSSI, at its client facilities in the states of Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee and Texas.

According to the department, the children worked overnight shifts, and at least three suffered injuries while cleaning back saws, brisket saws and head splitters. The company was fined $1.5 million in civil penalties.

While Packers Sanitation Services Inc. is an illustrative example, it is hardly isolated. The Labor Department says it has 600 ongoing child labor investigations.

“Since 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor has seen a 69 percent increase in children being employed illegally by companies. In the last fiscal year, the department found 835 companies it investigated had employed more than 3,800 children in violation of labor laws,” the department said Feb. 27.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh emphasized that child labor “is a today problem” and called on Congress and states to “come to the table.”

“This is a problem that will take all of us to stop,” Walsh said in a Feb. 27 statement.

The Labor Department called for Congress to increase violation penalties; an interagency task force; a strategic enforcement initiative and increased enforcement funding; and additional outreach services to unaccompanied refugee and migrant children who are vulnerable to labor exploitation.

“The church, in these recent times, has become alarmed by the increasing number of children involved in the labor force,” Father Christopher Mahar, an official in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, told OSV News. “It is essential for society to concentrate on the root causes of poverty and not attempt to solve the economic crises by turning to child labor.”

Employers frequently cite an ongoing worker shortage among their challenges, which has motivated some state legislators to introduce bills that would weaken child labor law age regulations and safety protections.

In Minnesota, Sen. Rich Draheim, R-District 22, is the sponsor of SF 375, a bill that would make it easier for construction companies to hire 16- and 17-year-olds.

“My bill simply conforms Minnesota law to the existing federal standards,” Draheim asserted in a statement to OSV News. “Eliminating work opportunities for youth just because of their age will make it even harder for businesses to find reliable employees. Businesses teach these youth workers skills that will prepare them for their future, and maybe even attract them to their industry for life.”

Draheim’s office noted that Minnesota’s unemployment rate is among the lowest in the country, with an exceptionally tight labor market.

The Minnesota Catholic Conference indicated it had “no comment on the bill as we have not vetted it fully.” The bill is currently in committee.

In Iowa, SF 167, a bill introduced by Sen. Jason Schultz, R-District 6, would extend work hours for 14- and 15-year-olds; allow six hours of work a day during the school year; allow 17-year-olds to work the same hours as adults; eliminate work permits; and limit employer liability.

There also is the possibility of exceptions for previously prohibited industries, allowing teens 14-17 to take part in “work-based learning or a school or employer-administered, work-related program.”

Schultz’s office did not respond to OSV News’ request for comment.

The Iowa Catholic Conference said it “has not taken a position on the bill to date.” The Iowa Senate Workforce Committee approved the bill March 6, renumbering it SF 542, with the Iowa House Commerce Committee advancing its companion bill March 7.

“When I hear an employer say that there’s a worker shortage, what they’re actually saying is there are no workers available to work at the price I’m willing to pay,” Clayton Sinyai noted. “They don’t like the current labor market, and would like to pay people less. And children will work for less.”

Mary Leary, professor and senior associate dean for academic affairs at The Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law in Washington, agreed.

“It’s a cost-cutting measure for global companies to not do what the market would normally say they have to do — which is increase costs, decrease risk, and make this job more attractive to the workforce,” she told OSV News.

Kevin Cassidy, director of the U.S. office of the International Labor Organization, told OSV News the problem is that in the U.S., “People are not being offered good pay for those dirty, dull and dangerous jobs.”

The ILO is a Geneva, Switzerland-based specialized agency of the United Nations, and has confronted the issue of child labor since its 1919 founding. It sets international labor standards, and advises the U.S. government concerning policy. The Vatican delegates a permanent observer to the U.N. and its agencies, and Pope Francis has offered messages to ILO gatherings.

“Unscrupulous employers take advantage of the fact that the children are not aware of that,” Cassidy said. “At the end of the day, it is an exploitation of their vulnerability, and that is absolutely unacceptable from a human rights point of view.”

Benjamin Smith, the ILO’s senior child labor specialist, told OSV News that for economic growth, “decent work for parents is critical, so labor markets don’t respond to shortages by plugging the gap with children.”

Pope Francis has made the same argument. At the Vatican’s 2021 conference “Eradicating Child Labor, Building a Better Future,” the pontiff said, “We must encourage states and actors in the business world to create dignified jobs with equitable salaries which allow families to satisfy their needs without their children being forced to work.”

Ultimately, child labor will persist until the national willpower is summoned to end it.

“We can’t turn a blind eye to this. We do have an obligation — whether it’s morally, spiritually, or economically — to ensure that we do our part,” said Cassidy. “When we see these things happening around us, we have to call it out. It’s not somebody else’s problem. It’s society’s problem.”

Kimberley Heatherington writes for OSV News from Virginia.

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