How much is a childhood worth?
I learned about child trafficking at a missions conference in 2006, and like many people first learning about the issue, I understood two things: it was selling children for sex, and it happened in foreign countries.
Since that time, I’ve learned that child sex trafficking happens every day in the United States to tens of thousands of children. The hardest part to understand is that often, the trafficker is someone the child knows and loves; a parent, for instance.
Only in very rare instances did I learn about trafficking children for labor in the United States. Usually, it was a case of farmworker parents taking their children with them into the field.
But I never would have anticipated that in the United States of America, states would actually make trafficking children for labor legal. Already 11 states have loosened child labor regulations or have introduced bills to do so. Arkansas no longer requires children 15 and under to get a worker’s permit. The state also broadened the type of dangerous jobs kids can do and eliminated liability for the employer if the child is injured.
So as I read about case after case of children working 12–15-hour shifts, quitting school, being held in debt bondage . . . it finally dawned on me. For the most part, these are not American children, so, in the eyes of many legislators, and of corporate America, that makes it ok. It’s not as though my children will be placed in harm’s way – these are children from Mexico and Guatemala and other third world countries. They have brown skin and no American citizenship, and they are, therefore, disposable.
If a child loses a finger or arm or leg, there is another child waiting to take his place. The conveyor belt will most likely not even slow down.
So why have lawmakers across the country suddenly decided to sacrifice the childhoods of these precious children? Four huge clouds converged to make this horrific storm. First, most of the country is facing a severe labor shortage, especially in low-wage industries; second, the rise of the anti-government movement; third, anti-immigrant sentiment; and fourth, a broken process for handling unaccompanied minors who cross the US-Mexico border.
The current unemployment rate is 3.5%. It has not been lower than that in the past 10 years. Some employers are paying signing bonuses, increasing their starting pay, and increasing benefits in order to attract employees. Other are decreasing the hours their business is open and reducing the services offered. Still others are hiring vulnerable minors (and adults) who won’t protest the poor working conditions.
Many groups claiming to want to reduce government interference in American lives use that as a shield to cover their actual activities.
For example, the webpage of the Foundation for Government Accountability states “Millions more will have access to better jobs and bigger paychecks thanks to our efforts to remove government barriers to opportunity. And our focus on integrity in social programs and elections helps limit government power and keep it accountable to the people.” That sounds like a positive goal. Unfortunately, that group’s lobbying arm, the Opportunity Solutions Project, is proposing bills to legislatures all over the country to weaken protections for child workers. These are being masked as reductions in government red tape and interference in the lives of Americans.
According to a New York Times article, the “FGA for years has worked systematically to shape policy at the state level, fighting to advance conservative causes such as restricting access to anti-poverty programs and blocking Medicaid expansion.”
Anti-immigrant sentiment has risen in some circles because of a mistaken belief that immigrant take jobs away from Americans. In North Carolina, it’s obvious that immigrants perform jobs that few Americans are willing to do.
This same antagonism toward noncitizens leads to a lack of concern for how they are treated at the US Border, regardless of their age or reason for wishing to cross in the US. When pictures of children caged at the border emerged, the outrage motivated officials to more quickly “process” unaccompanied minors. Children were supposed to be turned over to relatives or others willing to care for them. Some “sponsors” were allowed to take multiple unrelated children. Follow up on the children’s well-being is practically non-existent. And it turns out that many of those children are “lost” – the US Government has no idea where they or their sponsors are. Some of them are working in meat processing plants, some in fields, some in manufacturing facilities.
Part of the purpose of the Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938 was to protect children from unscrupulous employers who hired them to do dangerous work.
Unfortunately, those standards are not strictly enforced, in large part due to the department of labor having its own labor shortage.
Even with the lack of enforcement staff, 4,144 child labor violations affecting 15,462 child workers were opened between 2018 and 2022, according to federal data.
To review: The United States has a labor shortage. So instead of paying workers more, increasing benefits and treating them better, the solution is to legalize the hiring of children (especially foreign brown children) to do the most dangerous jobs, work the longest shifts and the worst hours.
Welcome to America.
–— Pam Strickland, CEO & Founder, NC Stop Human Traffickin