The argument for reviving the “Child Labor Amendment”

The argument for reviving the “Child Labor Amendment”

  • Published on
    May 13, 2024
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  • Category:
    Child Slavery, Law & Policy
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Child labor protections in the U.S. are facing unprecedented rollbacks at a rate that hasn’t been seen in decades. In 2022 and 2023, Arkansas, Iowa, New Hampshire, and New Jersey enacted laws that weaken safeguards for young workers. At least eight more states are threatening similar measures. Most recently, Missouri is eyeing a bill to loosen restrictions for 14- and 15-year-olds, while the Alabama Policy Institute is pushing for the dismantling of child labor laws as a solution for the state’s labor shortage.

Against this backdrop, a coalition of powerful investment managers and public treasurers, with assets invested in McDonald’s, is demanding that the company take stronger measures to address child labor violations at its franchises. In letters sent to the boards of McDonald’s and Wendy’s, these shareholders urged the adoption of a zero-tolerance policy for child labor and the conduction of third-party human rights risk assessments. This move follows a Washington Post investigation that highlighted McDonald’s and Wendy’s as having the highest numbers of child labor violations per store in the fast-food industry since 2020. McDonald’s alone has been cited for over 2,300 violations since 2013.

Stated in the letter to McDonald’s incoming lead independent director, Miles White:

“We are concerned that the McDonald’s Board is failing to appropriately oversee the Company’s employment practices and is failing to mitigate risks to the Company’s reputation.” 

Historical shortcomings of child labor legislation

The struggle to abolish child labor in the United States has a long and contentious history. By 1900, a staggering 1.75 million children under 15 worked in industrial jobs, which grew to over 2 million by 1910. Unfortunately, despite concerted efforts throughout the century to pass a Child Labor Amendment to the Constitution, which would have empowered Congress to regulate child labor uniformly across the country, business opposition thwarted its ratification. As a “consolation prize” children were left with the limited protections that the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) had to offer them.

Dr. Betsy Wood of TIME points out that the FLSA’s foundation has significant weaknesses. It primarily covered children in industrial settings and exempted large sectors like agriculture, tenement work, and street trades. As a result, many children continued to work in hazardous conditions, particularly in agriculture, which remains under-regulated today.

She states,

In the United States today we are where we are in part because of this failure. There are vulnerabilities in the FLSA that have led to large swaths of child labor going un- or under-regulated, such as in agriculture. The selective nature of the FLSA has shaped the landscape of child labor regulation for generations of young people in the U.S. And now, many states want to roll back the limited protections that do exist.

The case for reviving the Child Labor Amendment

Given the ongoing issues with child labor, Wood suggests reviving the Child Labor Amendment to establish stronger, more comprehensive protections. If ratified, this amendment would empower Congress to regulate child labor more effectively, closing loopholes that have persisted for decades. As of 1937, 28 states had ratified the amendment, just ten short of the necessary 38.

She states,

Empowering Congress to regulate children’s labor under an amended U.S. Constitution could lay the foundations for a consistent federal standard that prioritizes children’s rights at a critical moment when business interests are gaining ground. The people’s representatives could enact a national standard that closes loopholes and exceptions, righting a 100-year wrong that has been allowed to stand for far too long.

Strategizing the end of child labor rollbacks

The ongoing child labor violations at McDonald’s and Wendy’s highlight the critical need for stronger regulatory measures. The recent shareholder push for tougher action underscores the urgency of the situation.

Reviving the Child Labor Amendment offers a path to stronger, more uniform protections for all children, addressing the gaps left by the FLSA and adapting to contemporary challenges. This move could ensure that child labor laws are robust and uniformly enforced, thereby protecting young workers across all sectors and states. However, to address these gaps in the limited child labor protections that exist today, we must stop the trend of child labor rollbacks across the states first. Join us in calling for and end to child labor law rollbacks by signing our petition.


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