HONOLULU (KHON2) — On a cold day in Aberdeen Scotland in 1743, a young boy was out playing with his friends at a quayside in the harbor. Suddenly, a group of men approached them. They didn’t say much; the men moved quickly to capture the boys.
The boys were the target of a profit making scheme by the City’s Council where children were stolen off streets and sold to the highest bidders in the new world. That boy ended up escaping slavery, returning to Scotland and suing his kidnappers. His name was Indian Pete.
Get Hawaii’s latest morning news delivered to your inbox, sign up for News 2 You
Eventually, after a literal civil war, the U.S. banned slavery outside the penal system. However, laws protecting children still didn’t really exist.
When the manufacturing, mining, domestic and agriculture industries lost its largely slave labor force, many turned to children to fill the gap. Children as young as 10, and often times even younger, toiled for very low wages in work that adults either would not or could not perform.
With few families having access to family planning or sex education, families proliferated with many children. But, few families had the means to feed and clothe the number of children they were having.
The large families that were unable to provide necessities became a rich breeding ground for labor. Children had no rights, and families were desperate for money.
As labor movements progressed in the U.S. in the early years of the 20th century, child labor laws were finally enacted in 1938.
Since then, child labor has been mostly illegal. However, over the last couple of decades, some politicians and corporate leaders have been attempting to erase the line that protects children from labor exploitation.
For example, at the state level, Iowa legislators introduced a bill that will roll back the age limit for gaining employment and extend the hours that children work. The bill would also strip children of workers’ compensation rights by shielding a business from any liability if a child is injured or becomes sick while performing tasks related to their work.
Another bill in Ohio seeks to extend the hours that children can work and lower the age threshold. And, Minnesota introduced a bill that would do the same.
On the federal level, Republican Dave Joyce of Ohio introduced a bill to Congress that would expand working hours for children.
The Department of Labor found that child labor exploitation has increased 69% since 2018.
Businesses, in a move to subvert established laws that protect children from labor exploitation, have been turning to children to fill positions that adults will not take; and immigrant children are experiencing the brunt of this.
Last year alone, nearly 4,000 children were found to have been victims of child labor exploitation with several big companies across the U.S. In another case, a Wisconsin company was found to be exploiting child laborers in slaughterhouses.
The Department of Labor has been working to locate companies that seek to exploit children as businesses utilize a loophole in employment laws that enable them to categorize children who are being exploited for labor as contractors.
Michael Lazzeri, a Wage and Hour Regional Administrator, told the Associated Press that “this case should serve as a stark reminder for all employers that the U.S. Department of Labor will not tolerate violations of the law, especially those that put vulnerable children at risk.”
So, bringing us back to Hawai’i, Sen. Brian Schatz has introduced a new federal bill that seeks to create protections for children who are victims of child labor exploitation.
The Child Labor Protection Act would increase the maximum fines for violating child labor laws and establish new criminal penalties for employers who do exploit children.
Sen. Schatz said that the Child Labor Prevention Act seeks to:
- Increase the maximum civil penalties for an employer who exploits children for labor.
- $5,000 minimum – $132,270 maximum for routine violations; and
- $25,000 minimum – $601,150 maximum for each violation that causes the death or serious injury of a minor.
- Establish criminal penalties for repeat exploiters of children or willful violations of child labor laws to include a fine of up to $50,000 and a year in jail.
- Ensure that all working minors, regardless of classification, are covered by the existing protections in the Fair Labor Standards Act; and
- Index all penalties to the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) to ensure they increase over time.
Get news on the go with KHON 2GO, KHON’s morning podcast, every morning at 8
“Right now, our laws are allowing some of the worst employers to get away with exploiting kids for labor with nothing more than weak fines,” said Sen. Schatz. “Our bill will strengthen our child labor laws, hold employers accountable and protect kids from this illicit practice.”