By Chris Fry
On February 25th, the New York Times published an article titled “Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.” The article describes in gruesome detail how thousands of migrant children, mostly from Central America, are forced to work night and day, from small sweatshops to huge corporate factories, risking life and limb, with full knowledge of business owners and government officials:
It was almost midnight in Grand Rapids, Mich., but inside the factory everything was bright. A conveyor belt carried bags of Cheerios past a cluster of young workers. One was 15-year-old Carolina Yoc, who came to the United States on her own last year to live with a relative she had never met.
About every 10 seconds, she stuffed a sealed plastic bag of cereal into a passing yellow carton. ..
The factory was full of underage workers like Carolina, who had crossed the Southern border by themselves and were now spending late hours bent over hazardous machinery, in violation of child labor laws. At nearby plants, other children were tending giant ovens to make Chewy and Nature Valley granola bars and packing bags of Lucky Charms and Cheetos — all of them working for the processing giant Hearthside Food Solutions, which would ship these products around the country.
These workers are part of a new economy of exploitation: Migrant children, who have been coming into the United States without their parents in record numbers, are ending up in some of the most punishing jobs in the country, a New York Times investigation found. ..Twelve-year-old roofers in Florida and Tennessee. Underage slaughterhouse workers in Delaware, Mississippi, and North Carolina. Children sawing planks of wood on overnight shifts in South Dakota.
The article explains that these unaccompanied children, who for the last two years have numbered more than 250,000, did not cross the border secretly. They registered when they entered and were released to “sponsors”, sometimes distant relatives and strangers. They are sometimes enrolled in schools, but then would rush to various workplaces to work long hours into the night.
A February 27 Detroit News article focused on Michigan:
[A]utomotive suppliers and a food contractor in the Grand Rapids area are illegally employing migrant children in jobs that can include dangerous conditions and long hours, producing goods used by Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., and General Mills Inc.
The west Michigan cases are part of a national pattern of children who migrate to the United States and find themselves working exhausting jobs, often trapped in debt for smuggling fees and living expenses to people serving as their sponsors.
There has been a 69% increase in children illegally working at U.S. companies since 2018, the Labor Department said. The agency said it has 600 child labor investigations underway and that it found 835 companies in the last fiscal year that violated labor laws employing more than 3,800 kids.
These children are often placed illegally in dangerous jobs according to the New York Times article:
Federal law bars minors from a long list of dangerous jobs, including roofing, meat processing and commercial baking.
But these jobs — which are grueling and poorly paid, and thus chronically short-staffed — are exactly where many migrant children are ending up. Adolescents are twice as likely as adults to be seriously injured at work, yet recently arrived preteens and teenagers are running industrial dough mixers, driving massive earthmovers, and burning their hands on hot tar as they lay down roofing shingles, the Times found.
Unaccompanied minors have had their legs torn off in factories and their spines shattered on construction sites, but most of these injuries go uncounted. ..Reviewing state and federal safety records and public reports, the Times found a dozen cases of young migrant workers killed since 2017, the last year the Labor Department reported any.
The deaths include a 14-year-old food delivery worker who was hit by a car while on his bike at a Brooklyn intersection; a 16-year-old who was crushed under a 35-ton tractor-scraper outside Atlanta; and a 15-year-old who fell 50 feet from a roof in Alabama where he was laying down shingles.
Dickens, Marx and Child Labor
The great author Charles Dickens was born in 1812, the second of eight children. His father, a naval clerk, went bankrupt and was thrown into a debtor’s prison when Charles was 12 years old. Charles was forced to leave school and work 10 hour shifts in a shoe polish factory. This gave him a deep insight of the plight of poor children during the industrial revolution in England.
Dickens’ second novel “Oliver Twist” describes the life of Oliver, an orphan, placed in a workhouse with dozens of other children. He, like they, must earn their daily ration of gruel, a watered down version of porridge, a starvation diet, by “picking oakum”. That means he was forced to comb through tarred hemp fibers to make material for sealant for sailing ships.
If Dickens dramatized the plight of children workers, it was the revolutionary theorist and organizer Karl Marx who put child labor under a microscope. Here is an excerpt from his seminal work, “Das Kapital” (Capital):
The potteries of Staffordshire have, during the last 22 years, been the subject of three parliamentary inquiries. The result is embodied in Mr. Scriven’s Report of 1841 to the “Children’s Employment Commissioners,” in the report of Dr. Greenhow of 1860 published by order of the medical officer of the Privy Council (Public Health, 3rd Report, 112-113), lastly, in the report of Mr. Longe of 1862 in the “First Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, of the 13th June, 1863.” For my purpose it is enough to take, from the reports of 1860 and 1863, some depositions of the exploited children themselves. From the children we may form an opinion as to the adults, especially the girls and women, and that in a branch of industry by the side of which cotton-spinning appears an agreeable and healthful occupation.
William Wood, 9 years old, was 7 years and 10 months when he began to work. He “ran moulds” (carried ready-moulded articles into the drying-room, afterwards bringing back the empty mould) from the beginning. He came to work every day in the week at 6 a.m., and left off about 9 p.m. “I work till 9 o’clock at night six days in the week. I have done so seven or eight weeks.”
Fifteen hours of labour for a child 7 years old! J. Murray, 12 years of age, says: “I turn jigger, and run moulds. I come at 6. Sometimes I come at 4. I worked all night last night, till 6 o’clock this morning. I have not been in bed since the night before last. There were eight or nine other boys working last night. All but one have come this morning. I get 3 shillings and sixpence. I do not get any more for working at night. I worked two nights last week.”
Fernyhough, a boy of ten:
“I have not always an hour (for dinner). I have only half an hour sometimes; on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.”
Dr. Greenhow states that the average duration of life in the pottery districts of Stoke-on-Trent, and Wolstanton is extraordinarily short. Although in the district of Stoke, only 36.6% and in Wolstanton only 30.4% of the adult male population above 20 are employed in the potteries, among the men of that age in the first district more than half, in the second, nearly 2/5 of the whole deaths are the result of pulmonary diseases among the potters. Dr. Boothroyd, a medical practitioner at Hanley, says:
“Each successive generation of potters is more dwarfed and less robust than the preceding one.”
In like manner another doctor, Mr. M’Bean:
“Since he began to practice among the potters 25 years ago, he had observed a marked degeneration especially shown in diminution of stature and breadth.”
Marx describes how factory owners sent a squad of scouts out to look for the arrival of government inspectors, who would alert the owners. If they were coming, the owners would either turn off the lights or evacuate the children.
Big business today has “modernized” their technique. They use subcontractors to hire the children who bring the children into the plant. That way, if caught, it is the sub-contractors who will be fined, not the big corporations. And the ruling class has made sure that the number of government inspectors has been drastically reduced.
Imperialist nature of migrant child labor and its challenge to all workers and oppressed.
Dickens and Marx were both writing during the “competitive” stage of capitalism. The migrant child workers facing these horrendous conditions in the U.S. are a product of the current imperialist stage, where banks and multinational corporations “super-exploit” oppressed workers all over the globe, including in their “metropolitan centers”, like the U.S..
The U.S. Labor Department released a report stating:
Global estimates from the International Labor Organization (ILO) indicate that 160 million children between 5-17 years old were engaged in child labor in 2021, of which about 79 million were in hazardous labor. While concerted efforts by governments, workers, and employers have resulted in a reduction of nearly 86 million children engaged in child labor since 2000, this positive trend has changed in recent years. Global estimates in 2021 showed an increase of 8.4 million children in child labor in the last four years and a 6.5 million increase in the number of children engaged in hazardous work. As these figures suggest, there are still far too many children in exploitive work. Child laborers are found carrying heavy loads and wielding machetes on farms; scavenging in garbage dumps and are being exposed to electronic waste; enduring physical, emotional, and verbal abuse as domestic servants; and fighting as child combatants in armed conflict. The latest ILO global estimates also showed an increase from 24.9 to 27.6 million people who are trapped in forced labor, including 3.3 million children. Children and adults are forced to climb into mine shafts in search of diamonds and gold; are coerced, deceived, and confined on fishing vessels by unscrupulous labor recruiters; and are trapped in bonded labor while toiling in the extreme heat of brick kilns.
This is not simply a matter of moral outrage, although it is certainly that. Child labor is a challenge to the standard of living of the entire global working class and oppressed, including in the U.S. It allows the bosses to lower the pay and benefits to all working people.
It is worth noting that Revolutionary Cuba and Libya (under Qaddafi) were the first two of 175 countries to sign the 1973 ILO Convention 138, “Minimum Age for Admission to Employment”, where countries were obliged to work towards eliminating child labor. Under pressure from big business, the U.S. refused to sign that convention, and instead presented a watered-down version, Convention 182, “Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention”.
Of course, this latest attack on migrant children shows that, in its drive for profits, U.S. corporations ignore even that restraint as they super-exploit these vulnerable youth.
The solution offered by the fascist Trumpist wing is to simply deport these children back to their home countries, so that imperialism can continue to extract super profits there. But that “solution” is deadly for these children and does nothing to stop the downward economic spiral of conditions for our class here.
Labor must bind itself in solidarity with these children, for our sake as well as theirs. We must fight to stop this inhuman exploitation of migrant children. They have a right to a safe loving learning environment as much as any children here. And their families in their home countries deserve compensation from big business for all the profits extracted by imperialism over the years, here and there.