After a century, states are loosening child labor laws. Where’s the outrage? • Missouri Independent

After a century, states are loosening child labor laws. Where’s the outrage? • Missouri Independent
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After a century, states are loosening child labor laws. Where’s the …  Missouri Independent

Child Labor and the Fight for Reform

When Jacob Riis came to Emporia in 1902 to give a lecture, audiences knew what they could expect. Twelve years earlier, he had published “How the Other Half Lives,” which exposed through candid photographs the living conditions of the poor in the slums of New York City.

The Shadow Workers

The Danish-American muckraker’s subject for his Kansas audience that night was Tony, an orphaned immigrant boy living on the streets, and through his narrative and his magic lantern slides, Riis brought his middle-class audience into the boy’s world of hardship.

This Labor Day weekend, I’ll be thinking of Riis and other muckrakers who shamed and shocked a nation. What these troublemakers knew was that there was a vast army of shadow workers in America, composed of immigrants and other working poor, that was largely hidden from the conscience of the American public. Many of these shadow workers were children, and they often worked the most dangerous and lowest-paying jobs of all.

Documenting the Reality

About a decade after Riis lectured in Kansas, another photographer, Lewis Hine, working for the National Child Labor Committee, captured stark images of young children working in factories and cotton mills, particularly in the American South. Hine was a Wisconsin sociologist who had come to embrace documentary photography as a tool for social reform.

About the same time Riis was traveling to Emporia and Newton and Hutchinson to give his magic lantern lectures, Upton Sinclair was preparing to document the conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry not with a camera, but with his pen. Sinclair spent seven weeks undercover gathering material, on a commission from the widely distributed socialist newspaper the Appeal to Reason, published in Girard, Kansas.

The result was “The Jungle,” a stomach-churning expose of the industry. Originally published in serial form, the novel was picked up by Doubleday and released in 1906. Sinclair hoped his novel would result in labor reforms, especially for child workers.

Impact and Reforms

“Very often a man could get no work in Packingtown for months,” reads one passage in the novel, “while a child could go and get a place easily; there was always some new machine, by which the packers could get as much work out of child as they had been able to get out of a man, and for a third of the pay.”

But the public was more interested in the novel’s nauseating descriptions of conditions in the meatpacking plants than any labor reform. In the most famous scene of the novel, a man falls into a vat and is turned into lard. While Sinclair may have taken literary license with that episode, the filthy conditions in the rest of the book were based on first-hand observation. Americans were horrified to think where the meat on their tables may have been.

Sinclair joked that he had aimed for his audience’s heart and had hit them by accident in the stomach.

Public outcry over “The Jungle” resulted in the first federal meatpacking inspection laws and passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. Documentary photography, like that of sociologist Hine, eventually contributed to the passage, in 1938, of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the first federal law that prohibited any type of exploitive child labor.

Kansas’ first child labor law, in 1905, prohibited those under 14 from working in factories, meatpacking plants or mines. It also required employers to obtain certificates stating the ages of the young people they employed. State officials visited schools to make the new requirements known, kept tabs on employers, and even cracked down on the use of children as dancing and singing entertainment in the red light districts of larger towns.

Child Labor Today

After more than a century of progress, you might think child labor is a thing of the past, something we condemn other countries for but that we don’t need to worry about here. Tragically, that shadow army of workers is still with us, and many of those workers are children. These underage exploited are often immigrants and, as Upton Sinclair found, are working in meatpacking.

In February of this year, a cleaning company was fined $1.5 million for employing children ages 13 to 17 at meatpacking plants in eight states. The firm, Packers Sanitations Services Inc., was the target of a federal Department of Labor investigation that found 102 children working illegally, including 26 at the Cargill meatpacking plant at Dodge City.

For the Kansas violation, the firm was fined $400,000.

As in Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” many of the children were immigrants. Across the eight states, the children were exposed to dangerous chemicals and equipment that included saws and “headsplitters.”

“These children should never have been employed in meatpacking plants,” said Jessica Looman, a principal deputy administrator of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, in a press release, “and this can only happen when employers do not take responsibility to prevent child labor violations from occurring in the first place.”

After a century, states are loosening child labor laws. Where’s the outrage? • Missouri Independentmissouriindependent.com


Eatery fined for child labor violations

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