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The resurgence of child labor in America
May 2, 2023
Episode 915

The resurgence of child labor in America

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It's the consequence of multiple systemic failures.

Here’s something we didn’t think we’d be talking about in 2023: child labor. But, here we are.

Since 2018, there’s been a 69% increase in children working illegally, according to the Department of Labor, and hundreds of child labor cases are under investigation. Recent investigations show that many violations involve migrant children working dangerous jobs. At the same time, some states are rolling back child labor protections.

“When you get something this outrageous, it’s pretty much always many systems failing at the same time. And, what we’re seeing here is a crisis in the immigration system colliding with a crisis in labor shortages,” said Hannah Dreier, investigative reporter for the New York Times.

On the show today, Dreier explains what child labor looks like today, the multiple forces driving illegal child labor in the United States, and why some states are loosening child labor laws. Plus, how immigration policy changes could help migrant children who depend on the jobs they have.

In the News Fix: A new report projects some serious labor market churn due to advancements in technology in the next five years. And, looking back at previous debt-limit standoffs can provide a little insight at how the Fed may handle the one that’s going on now. And, who makes the laws in space?

Later, we’ll hear how one listener’s employer is dealing with ChatGPT. Plus, a Make Me Smart musical mix-up.

Here’s everything we talked about today:

Do you have an answer to the Make Me Smart question? We want to hear it. Leave us a voice message at 508-U-B-SMART, and your submission may be featured in a future episode.

Make Me Smart May 2, 2023 Transcript

Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.

Kimberly Adams 

Hello, I’m Kimberly Adams. Welcome to make me smart, where none of us is as smart as all of us.

Kimberly Adams 

I’m Kai Ryssdal. Great to have you along on this Tuesday. It is the second day of May. Single topic today as we do on Tuesdays and the single topic today, I still can’t believe we’re talking about this in 2023, It’s child labor in the United States. And what the what, as you will see.

Kimberly Adams 

Yeah, we wanted to know more about not just why it’s happening or why it’s been happening, why we’re getting a lot more attention on it lately, why some politicians are actually, strangely enough pushing to loosen some child labor protections, so here to make us smarter about all of this is Hannah Dreier. She’s an investigative journalist for The New York Times, who recently reported on how migrant children end up in dangerous jobs illegally across the US. Welcome to the show.

Hannah Dreier 

So good to be with you too.

Kimberly Adams 

Such a grim topic and your reporting on this was really astonishing. You know, for a lot of people, child labor might seem like a thing of the past, like maybe they remember the Newsies movie and, and all those sort of tropes of you know, the Great Depression and things like that. But it’s still very much a real part of this economy. What does child labor look like today?

Hannah Dreier 

I mean, child labor is on the rise in a way that even I never expected that I would find. Um, there have been 300,000 migrant children who’ve come across the border alone, just since Biden took office. And what I found is that the majority of these kids are ending up working full time in these punishing jobs. I had thought maybe I would find kids working in restaurants, working in agriculture. But actually, these kids are working industrial factory jobs. They are packing Cheerios, they’re making car parts for Ford and General Motors. It’s a totally different kind of child labor than we’ve seen in, you know, decades.

Kai Ryssdal 

I’m going to skip ahead in the story here and ask you this question Hannah. How is this possible?

Hannah Dreier 

I mean, when you get something this outrageous, it’s pretty much always many systems failing at the same time. And what we’re seeing here is a crisis in the immigration system. It’s colliding with, you know, labor shortages. So when I talk to some of these employers and ask them, How did it happen, that they were children, you know, working overnight, they can carve parts for you. What they told me is we couldn’t find workers who are going to take those jobs. And so we turn to staffing agencies and the staffing agencies then turn to these children. It’s sort of both things happening at once immigration and labor.

Kimberly Adams 

Now, I was surprised to discover that there are sort of two buckets. There is legal child labor in this country, but what you’re talking about is illegal child labor. Can you talk about what’s legal, and what isn’t?

Hannah Dreier 

Well, I mean, most people work when they’re a teenager, I worked I’m assuming you two probably had jobs. And those jobs tend to be you know, working at a grocery store, working at a restaurant. There are a lot of things that young people can do for a few hours a day or on the weekends. But what we’re talking about here are the most dangerous jobs, the kinds of jobs that have been banned for children since the 1930s. So when you’re talking about meat processing, roofing, these sort of industrial jobs. That’s the kind of work that is always off limits for somebody who’s under 18. And the sad thing is that a lot of these migrant children would qualify for work permits to be able to do those sort of more standard teenage jobs. But they would need a lawyer to help them apply. It’s not that they’re here totally undocumented. They sort of have a provisional legal status, and they haven’t applied for the work permit that would let them work a safer job.

Kai Ryssdal 

Setting aside for the for the moment, the fact that these kids have no direct advocate right there. No lawyers, no, probably caseworkers or anything. Where are federal regulators? I mean, OSHA, for instance, what’s, where are they?

Hannah Dreier 

Right, I mean, all of this is totally illegal. And we have the Department of Labor, which is supposed to enforce child labor laws all across the country. And what inspectors told me is that they have been very overwhelmed these last several years. They’re understaffed, they’re basically responding to complaints that come in. They don’t have time to go out and do these proactive child labor investigations. And, you know, as you can imagine, migrant children are some of the least likely people to call a labor inspector and complain about their employer. So these kids have just been sort of in the shadows. But you know, they’re not that in the shadows. I mean, if you go and watch the shift change at a lot of these factories, it’s obvious that these are children, you know, a 13 year old does not look like a 19 year old.

Kimberly Adams 

So then, that’s what the federal government sort of is or isn’t doing here. What about corporations? What role do they play in all of this?

Hannah Dreier 

So corporations are insulated by a few layers. For example, we found kids who are making Flaming Hot Cheetos. And these kids were working all night, they told me that their lungs burned from the hot dust. And then they would go to school first thing in the morning, maybe get a couple hours of sleep, and then go right back to the factory to work overnight again. That, you know, is total violation of several laws. And the kids were right there coming out of the factory, easy for anybody to see. But Cheeots, the brand, had delegated that work to a manufacturer. And then the manufacturer had gone to a staffing agency to hire these children. And so we we went to Cheetos, they said, Oh, well, this is against our code of conduct. And of course, we had no idea that there were children here. And after our reporting, the Department of Labor came in and started investigating the manufacturer, but not the brand. So the companies say that they’re shocked, they’re outraged, but they really don’t have a lot of accountability.

Kai Ryssdal 

So the catch, of course, is that these kids probably need the money for their families, they need the money for themselves depending on how old they might be. And if if they get cracked down upon by the Department of Labor and federal regulators, then they’re out of a job. So is there is there a way to protect them without making them worse off?

Hannah Dreier 

It’s such a good question. A lot of these kids are coming here, they’re actually being sent by their parents, because their parents can’t cross the border, but the kids can. And so they’re sent and there’s a lot of pressure on them to send money back home. And then they often find that the person who they are living with also expects them to pay rent to pay for food, often to pay a debt. And so it’s not that they couldn’t really stop working. But at the very least they could be working safer jobs. And right now they’re just working the jobs that nobody else will do. Because those are the jobs where employers are willing to look the other way and hire a child who’s working without papers.

Kimberly Adams 

Some states are actually loosening child labor laws. Where’s that happening? And what kind of changes are they pushing for?

Hannah Dreier 

I mean, it’s amazing in 2023 that this is what we’re seeing. But there is this wave of pro-child labor laws in a lot of Republican state.

Kai Ryssdal 

Think about what you just said, Sorry. A pro child labor law. Come on. Sorry, I can’t believe this whole thing is… we’re having this conversation. Honestly

Hannah Dreier 

It’s amazing. I mean, the New York Times recently had an editorial about child labor. The point was basically that child labor is bad, but you wouldn’t think that we would need 800 words on that, but this is the situation.

Kimberly Adams 

So you have to say it out loud. Yes this is a bad thing.

Hannah Dreier 

Yes, let’s all say it together. Um, so these are laws that are being pushed by this business interest and especially by this billionaire backed organization, that’s been lobbying out of Florida. And we’re seeing them in Arkansas, Ohio, Iowa, a lot of states that have grappled with labor shortages in these industrial sectors. And the idea of the laws is to make it easier for kids as young as 14 and 15 to work overnight, or get meat processing plants work without a permit, or any age verification. And some people argue that it’s good for children to work, and you learn by working. And child welfare advocates, I think, are very worried that these laws are going to encourage kids to take dangerous jobs and to skimp on sleep and sort of be where children shouldn’t be.

Kimberly Adams 

You know, we’re both kind of expressing this shock, which we shouldn’t be surprised at anything, I guess, at this point anymore. What, what kind of reactions have you been getting to this reporting, especially from the communities that you’re talking about where the their families really are reliant on this income?

Hannah Dreier 

I mean, people took huge risks to talk to me for this story, I talked to more than 100 children who are currently working these dangerous illegal jobs and their families. And the reason why they talked is because they feel like there isn’t any support for them in this country. And they want people to know what they’re going through. And they want people may be back in Guatemala or Central America, to sort of know what it’s like here. That it’s not going to be this promised land the way that they might have thought. There have been some reforms made just in the last two months since my first story on this came out. Two days later, the Biden administration announced that it was going to get much more serious about enforcing child labor laws. And we’ve seen a lot of changes at the Department of Labor, they’re getting more resources, they’re focusing more on proactively looking for these kids, which is something that seems like it might make a difference. And the other part of all of this is the support that these kids are getting or not getting, and the government is pledging to at least give kids a couple months of social work when they are first released to their sponsors. And the hope is, at least there could be a trusted adult, where a kid could go and confide you know that they’re being exploited, that they’re being forced to work. Somebody could be there to help them for a few months, at least, it’s not much, but it’s more than these kids have historically been getting.

Kimberly Adams 

Hannah Dreier, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, thank you so much.

Hannah Dreier 

Thank you.

Kai Ryssdal 

Thanks a lot.

Kimberly Adams 

I was on a panel a couple of weeks ago with a woman Melissa Sanchez from Pro Publica, who’s been reporting on this topic as well, going back to at least 2020. And one of the things she was saying was that, you know, even in her own family, there were a lot of, you know, child workers, and that is what helped her family kind of establish itself in the United States. And at the same time, now she’s doing, you know, similar reporting to what Hannah has been doing. And it’s, it’s devastating, and it is so tied with sort of people in extraordinarily vulnerable situations, but and also sort of the frailties and incompetence of our own systems.

Kai Ryssdal 

Yeah. And so we are not for the first time, adults in America are failing the children of America and other countries. Anyway, anyway, on that cheery thought. We want to know what you think are numbers 508-827-6278. 508-827-6278. 508-UB-SMART is another way to dial that. Or you can email us makemesmart@marketplace.org. We’re coming right back

Kai Ryssdal 

It is time to do some news. Ms. Adams.

Kimberly Adams 

I am very fascinated by a report out from the World Economic Forum this week. Well, I guess April 30, but whatever most people are talking about this week. And it’s the future of jobs report 2023. It’s a lengthy report. But there’s a nice summary that we’ll link to in the show notes, where basically, they surveyed, you know, something like 800 different businesses, globally, businesses, and sorry… 803 companies globally, collectively representing 11.3 million workers across 27 industry clusters and 45 economies from all world regions. And some of the takeaways about where the global labor market is going, are things that you might expect. Lots of companies interested in AI and automation. And also some things that you might not expect in terms of which industries are going to, you know, be okay. Like, apparently, retail is going to, you know, retail jobs are still going to exist in very similar ways. But, you know, there is one of the big headlines was employers anticipate a structural labor, labor market churn of 23% of jobs in the next five years.

Kai Ryssdal 

Wow. That’s a lot. That’s a lot.

Kimberly Adams 

That’s a lot. And so, you know, it’s a mix of emerging jobs and declining jobs eliminated, right? So emerging jobs added, declining jobs eliminated. So higher than average churn in the supply chain, and transportation and media, entertainment, and sports industries. So the supply chain and transportation makes a lot of sense with automation, self driving, things like that. You know, media entertainment and sports, we’ve been talking about how we’re all kind of just like losing our jobs, but that’s okay. But lower than average churn in manufacturing, as well as retail and wholesale of consumer goods. And I have to wonder if that has to do with the fact that they’ve kind of automated those as much as you can, at this point, right? Like, you have to have a certain number of people in a store to sell things if you’re going to have a store, you know. Amazon has to have somebody managing the robots, you know, on the floors of its, you know, packing facilities. And manufacturing, obviously, that push to automation has been going on for decades. So, you know, organizations today, this is a different one, estimate that 34% of all business related tasks are performed by machines, with the remaining 66%, performed by humans. Not a huge increase from 2020, which again, kind of reinforces that idea that a lot of the automation in some sectors has already happened. But in other sectors like ours, it’s just now kind of kicking off. And I think there’s a ton of interesting takeaways in this. And just as we all think about, you know, how to keep ourselves relevant in the workforce, it’s useful to read these kinds of things and see, you know, what’s going to happen in your industry where there’s opportunity for growth, where we might all need a little bit more training.

Kai Ryssdal 

I’ve told you that joke I’m sure I have about the last factory on the planet and the staff there. It’s one man and one dog. I’ve told you this joke, right?

Kimberly Adams 

You have, but maybe people haven’t heard it

Kai Ryssdal 

Super quick. Last factory on the planet. There’s a man there and there’s a dog there. The man’s job is to feed the dog, the dog’s job is to make sure the man doesn’t touch the equipment. Right. I mean, that’s the way it goes. That’s the way it goes. All right. Yeah.

Kimberly Adams 

It’s the sort of George Jetson. His job, that his whole life was built around was to go to work and push a button. The end.

Kai Ryssdal 

George Jetson.  Yeah, totally. All right. I’ve got two ones just sort of a quick revisit of something we did a couple of weeks ago, the space economy. There’s a story on Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which we will put on the Show page, talking about how nobody really knows exactly what the rules are up there, who is going to set the rules. There are apparently two American private company space probes that are going to go to the moon later this year. The Israelis tried a couple of years ago, they crashed. The Japanese just crashed last week. But we’re starting to get to the point where private companies are going out there as we talked about on that episode, and ain’t nobody knows exactly what the rules are. And oh, by the way, private companies might not care what the rules are. See also… go ahead sorry.

Kimberly Adams 

Reminds me of you know what you read about sort of the colonialist expansion where all these private companies, you know, just lawlessly tramped, you know, all over the world. Of course, you know, in that context, they were murdering people as they went and taking over property that other people were using. Whereas in space, there’s nobody there that we know about yet. But you know, the similar… The similar, you know, fact of just like, no rules, fine, we’re going to exploit that. And I have to say, a couple of years ago, when I discovered that space lawyer was actually a real job just kind of blew my mind.

Kai Ryssdal 

Did you think about going to law school?

Kimberly Adams 

Absolutely. I love that tou put that in the past tense.

Kai Ryssdal 

Oh, look, here’s the deal with me and law school. I would love to study the law. I have no, no desire to actually be a lawyer. That’s that’s the problem.

Kimberly Adams 

Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, like, I am still not given up on on being an astronaut. We’ll see.

Kai Ryssdal 

Fair enough. But the second one is a story. My second item is a story from The Wall Street Journal from it is now two days ago. But it is all the more relevant because of what we talked about yesterday on this podcast, that Janet Yellen at the Treasury Department and the Congressional Budget Office, both say that early June is when we’re going to hit the X date for the debt limit. Jon Hilsenrath, who’s a very well plugged in Federal Reserve reporter has a piece in The Journal about what the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve might do if there is actually a default, because Republicans in Congress won’t lift the debt limit. Anyway, he goes through a bunch of scenarios. I recommend it to you because believe me, when I tell you, you’re gonna be hearing more about this story in the next 30 days, than you really ever would want to and it will help you to know what some of the ground rules are. Hilsenrath lays them out. But the last paragraph of this story is the kicker. So Hilsenrath goes through, you know what happened in 2011, what happened in various other debt limits standoffs. And it closes with this. “More than a decade later” speaking about the 2011 crisis now in the present day, “more than a decade later, Ms. Yellen is now Treasury Secretary, and it is still hard to say if she is ready for what comes next.” That is not a reassuring way to frame the next 30 years of our lives.

Kimberly Adams 

Yeah, and just to sort of lay out the stakes that are highlighted here, and that we’ve we’ve covered in these debt ceiling debates over the years, it will come down to really hard decisions about who gets paid, and prioritizing servicing the national debt and paying interest payments so that doesn’t collapse the global economy. But you know, at the expense of what? At the expense of paying our service members, at the expense of paying people’s social security checks, at the expense of paying out government contractors who are providing services to the federal government. There’s going to end up being a ranking of if this actually happens. Who actually gets paid and when?

Kai Ryssdal 

Yeah and it’s gonna be messy. It’s gonna be very messy.

Kimberly Adams 

Messy. Messy. Alright, that is it for the news fix who let us do the mailbag.

Mailbag 

Hi Kai and Kimberly. This is Godfrey from San Francisco. Jessie from Charleston, South Carolina. And I have a follow up question. It has me thinking and feeling a lot of things.

Kimberly Adams 

We have been talking quite a bit about how chat GPT is already changing the way we work. And there’s some of that in that a World Economic Forum report I was just talking about. Megan sent us this message about how her company is dealing with AI.

Megan 

Hi Kai and Kimberly, this is Megan in Kalamazoo, Michigan.I work for a public accounting firm. And when I booted up my work computer and went to the homepage of our internal site, one of the updates had the headline please refrain from using chat GPT and other conversational AI tools at this time. Among the reasons given, employees must not use directly generated content as it may infringe on intellectual property rights or violate applicable laws. They did say they’re looking into ways that AI tools might be used in the future, and have invited us to share any input that we may have.Just another bit of anak data for the pile

Kimberly Adams 

I love that anak data.

Kai Ryssdal 

I hadn’t really thought about the fact that the lawsuits are gonna start flying over the use of this stuff.

Kimberly Adams 

Neither did I. I knew that like, chat GPT and open AI and these companies are potentially going to, you know, be sued for siphoning people’s intellectual property to feed into their datasets. But then what is the liability of people who use that content that Chat GPT generates and make money off of it? Like that could have a knock on liability? I didn’t… I definitely had not thought of that. Thank you, Megan. That’s super interesting.

Kai Ryssdal 

All right, before we go, we’re gonna leave you with this week’s answer to the make me smart question, which is of course what is something you thought you knew later found out you wrong about. Here we go.

Lisa

Hi, this is Lisa from Austin, Texas. And I wanted to contribute to the “something I thought I knew but found out I was wrong.” I’m embarrassed to say that your reference to sting all the time on your podcast– I thought those were actually little musical segways written and performed by Sting … So thanks for setting it straight.

Kai Ryssdal 

I love that. Oh man.

Kimberly Adams 

Oh, yes, so many weird terms that we use in media that like make no sense on the first pass. But yeah, that’s great.

Kai Ryssdal 

That’s awesome. Lisa thank you.

Kimberly Adams 

If only right.

Kai Ryssdal 

That’s right. That’s right. We probably couldn’t afford the right but that’s a whole different thing.

Kimberly Adams 

I was gonna say, the royalties. Yeah. All right. We want to know what you’ve been wrong about! Leave us a voice message with your answer to the Make Me Smart question … our number is 508- 827-6278 also known as 508-U-B-SMART!

Kai Ryssdal 

Make Me Smart is produced by Courtney Bergsieker. Ellen Rolfes writes our newsletter. Our intern is Antonio Barreras. Today’s program was engineered by Juan Carlos with mixing by Bekah Wineman.

Kimberly Adams 

Ben Tolliday and Daniel Ramirez composed our theme music. Our senior producer is Marissa Cabrera. Bridget Bodnar is the director of podcasts. Francesca Levy is the executive director of Digital. And Marketplace’s Vice President and General Manager is Neal Scarbrough.

Kai Ryssdal 

There we go.

Kimberly Adams 

There we go.

Kai Ryssdal 

Got them all in on time too. We have more music than we know what to do with. Are you playing the long version Juan Carlos? Is that what’s going on?

Kimberly Adams 

You can do a little dance if you want.

Kai Ryssdal 

I don’t do no dancing in my studio. Absolutely no dancing in my studio. It’s my rules. My studio my rules.

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