Employment figures last Friday showed a gain of 311,000 jobs in February, good news for everyone who got hired, bad news for Wall Street. The Dow Jones average closed down 1.07 percent, or 345 points, with the S&P average down 1.45 percent and the NASDAQ down 1.76 percent. All of the exchanges were down over four percent for the week. And this at a time when unemployment stands at 3.6 percent, and participation by workers in the labor force at 62.5 percent, the highest level since March of 2020.
But you want to know who is most unhappy about all that good news? Companies looking to hire low-wage workers. Average hourly earnings are up 4.6 percent from a year ago, meaning that those companies are having to pay more to the workers they hire, if they can find them. There are help wanted signs in windows and along the roads everywhere here in our corner of Northeast Pennsylvania, as I am sure there are where you live.
So how are companies and some of the states where they are located responding to the pain of having to pay more to lure fewer workers? Why, they are loosening child labor laws, of course! Adult workers, looking at all those help wanted signs and higher wages, are turning away from the really hard work in slaughterhouses and chicken processing plants. So, what’s the solution? Let’s hire kids, so we can pay them less!
Sarah Huckabee Sanders – remember seeing her scowling face infrequently at the White House press room podium during the early days of the Trump administration? – has landed her own self a job as governor of Arkansas, because of course she has! Sanders signed a bill last Tuesday that would eliminate age-verification requirements in her state for workers under the age of 16. Got that? Under age 16! Next door in Missouri, the legislature is fixin’ to do the same thing, as they say out there.
And next door from Missouri in the state of Iowa, they’ve got a bill before the legislature that would allow children as young as 14 and 15 to work on the dangerous floors of meatpacking plants. But that’s not enough for Iowa meatpackers, who you can bet have been showering Republican legislators with campaign contributions lately. Republicans have put forth a bill that would exempt certain businesses – read: meatpacking industry – from liability if a child worker is injured on the job or, God help us, killed.
Arkansas, in addition to being the headquarters of the low-wage king of them all, Walmart, is also the home of Tyson Foods, the largest poultry processing company in the United States, and the second largest processor of beef and pork products. Iowa grows the most chickens of any state in the country, meaning there are a lot of poultry slaughterhouses there, too. I don’t know what Missouri’s excuse is, other than the fact that conservative Republicans have a stranglehold on the governorship and state legislature. Maybe they’re just going along with the midwestern Republican crowd, which includes the states on their northern and southern borders. Oh, and let’s not forget Ohio – they’ve passed a law allowing children of 14 and 15 to work until 9 p.m. – another gift to the fast food industry which can now employ children to work the early night shift.
Poultry slaughterhouses, where Arkansas children as young as 14 or 15 can now work, have some of the most dangerous working conditions there are. Chickens are slaughtered and their feathers are removed by automation, but at that point, the slaughterhouse line is human-run. Workers use band-saws that run at high speeds to cut chickens in half and to remove legs, thighs, wings, and breasts. Removing skin and deboning breast meat is done with knives by hand, and so is much of the other work to prepare chicken meat for sale. In Iowa, if a child gets a finger – or even a hand – cut off, or caught in a processing machine, their families won’t be able to sue the company for the injury.
All these changes in child labor laws come on the heels of revelations last month by the Department of Labor that 102 children as young as 13 were found cleaning slaughterhouses in eight states while working for Packers Sanitation Services, Inc., a company that provides cleaning services to hundreds of slaughterhouses and packing plants around the country. The Labor Department said the children were found using “caustic chemicals to clean razor-sharp saws,” among other jobs. One of the most frequent sources of injuries at slaughterhouses is slippery floors. It would seem that the process of cleaning such plants would necessitate the use of hoses spraying water, causing the floors to be even more slippery. In addition, much of the work done by children to clean slaughterhouses was at night.
Packers Sanitation Services was fined $1.5 million, a sum arrived at by an individual fine of $15,138 for each underage worker employed in violation of the labor laws.
There was no information available about how long the children had been employed by Packers Sanitation, making it impossible to determine how much the company may have saved by employing underage workers, but I’ll bet it was more than $1.5 million. Some of the children working for the company cleaning a slaughterhouse in Grand Island, Nebraska, were found to be immigrants who came across the southern border as unaccompanied minors. NBC reported that investigators for the Department of Homeland Security were looking into whether the children were victims of labor trafficking.
Lawmakers in Minnesota are considering a bill that will allow children of 16 and 17 to work construction jobs. There have been recent reports that homebuilding companies are having a hard time filling their job requirements, so of course, let’s lobby the state legislatures to let sophomores and juniors in high school get up on roofs with nail guns and put up rafters and install shingles.
You would think there would be limits when it comes to the greed of the wealthy people who own these major companies that run packing plants or build houses. But no, there are no limits. They want more money, and when they start getting hurt by having to raise wages because of low unemployment, why not hire some children?
Do you think Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ children are working on the floor of a Tyson Foods chicken plant? Do you think the children of even a single state legislator in Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Iowa, or Nebraska are working in a slaughterhouse, even to clean it?
Civilized societies don’t do this kind of stuff. Democrats don’t vote for allowing children to do dangerous jobs. Republicans do. Democrats running next year for state and federal offices should yell their heads off about the cruelty of these Republican-controlled state legislatures and governors. If voters know what their representatives are doing to save billion-dollar multi-national companies a few dollars, maybe they’ll put somebody in office who will change these laws and save teenagers from losing fingers, hands, or even their lives on one of these killing floors.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.
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