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Child Labor Is a Feature of Our Capitalist System

Image by Kai Gietzen

In the face of a “labor shortage” that has seen workers quitting or refusing to return to low-paying jobs, many restaurants in the United States are now recruiting teenagers. A McDonald’s in Oregon made headlines when it put up a sign announcing that it was “NOW HIRING: 14 & 15 Year Olds.” A Burger King displayed a similar sign, calling out: “Hey Parents!!! Do you have a 14 or 15 year old?”

Fortunately for teenagers in Oregon, labor laws protect them from working long hours that would conflict with their schooling. But as long as businesses’ primary means of finding new hires is to look for younger people instead of improving wages, such protections for children may not last. The Wisconsin State Senate recently approved a bill that increases the hours 14- and 15-year-olds are allowed to work on non-school nights. Between July and September, 16- to 18-year-olds in New Jersey were temporarily allowed to work 50 hours a week instead of the usual 40 as a direct response to the labor shortage. Such legislation prompted Guardian columnist Arwa Madhawi to write that “it’s clear capitalism isn’t working when US politicians try to bring back child labor.”

As cutting and resonant as those words are, child labor is only being discussed now because it is becoming more obvious in the United States. Child labor has always been the norm under capitalism: It is a feature, not a bug. 

As the above examples show, children make a convenient reserve army of labor when adults are unwilling to work for low wages in poor conditions. Children and teenagers are easily manipulated, expect little in terms of pay, and have limited experience. It is no coincidence that the Burger King in Ohio addressed its message to the parents of 14- and 15-year-olds: Children are too young to make these decisions for themselves. They are not too young, apparently, to sign labor contracts.

Children are at a disadvantage in any free labor market, given their lack of experience and viable alternatives. This built-in discrimination against young people is noticeable in the Global North, where unpaid internships prompted author Ross Perlin to denounce “mass exploitation hidden in plain sight” in his book Intern Nation. In the 2010s, it seemed that an “intern revolution” was underway, with interns suing their employers for violating labor regulations by not paying them. A decade later, those gains seem ephemeral, in part due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But child labor is more pernicious by several orders of magnitude in the Global South: Statistics show that over 160 million children aged 5 to 17 were engaged in “age-inappropriate” labor in 2020, the vast majority of them in the Global South. This represents a rebound from continually declining numbers over the past decade, as the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic globally mirrors that in the United States: less government support, less family income, and more children forced to support their families. These children farm cocoa beans for Nestle, Cargill, and Mondelez. They mine cobalt for Apple, Google, and Microsoft. The exploitation of underprivileged laborers to extract resources from the Global South keeps products like chocolate and smartphones affordable. Thus, many corporations’ bottom lines depend on child labor.

The economy of the Global North has always depended on child labor. This should be obvious from the wide array of products that would be unaffordable without it. Yet, child labor is mostly diagnosed as an aberration that only occurs in “backwards” countries, as opposed to a feature of a global system of exploitation. Such a naive understanding of child labor undergirded the work of Free the Children, a Canadian pseudo-charity recently exposed as a global scam.

In order to truly address child labor, we need to understand its systemic roots. It is not something far away and aberrant but rather omnipresent and entirely normalized. In the Global North, workers are subjected to it, but consumers also benefit from its analog in the Global South.

In fact, child labor is such a fundamental part of corporations’ exploitation of the Global South that attempts to make it illegal have often struggled to distinguish between different forms of exploitation. As Kathi Weeks and Michael Hardt point out in openDemocracy, the United Nations’ 2000 Palermo Protocols defined trafficking (including child trafficking) “so broadly that it accidentally defined capitalism itself.” According to the protocol, “forced labor” is defined as labor that “abuses a position of vulnerability.” Such a definition could apply to a significant portion of the world’s wage laborers.

Countries in the Global North, in addition to legislating away their own child labor problems, must take responsibility for their complicity in child labor in the Global South. The US Supreme Court recently ruled eight to one against a lawsuit brought against Nestle and Cargill by six former child slaves. The court ruled that the corporations could not be prosecuted under the 200-year-old Alien Tort Statute because nothing occurred in the United States beyond “general corporate activity.” Of course, “general corporate activity” includes buying the cheapest cocoa beans possible, and those beans will be farmed by the cheapest laborers available: children.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito questioned the protections granted to corporations guarding them from prosecution for complicity in crimes overseas—protections not granted to individuals. Alito, one of the more conservative judges on the Supreme Court, argued that “corporate status does not justify special immunity.” Ending child labor worldwide is a monumental task, but a fair and equal application of laws already in place is a good place to start. If corporations can be prosecuted as individuals, they should not be entitled to protections individuals lack.

Of course, were the Supreme Court to have ruled the other way and allowed American corporations to be prosecuted for crimes abroad, the implications would be massive: Corporations like Nestle and Apple would have to pay more attention to how they are sourcing their raw materials, which, given their dependency on child labor, would impact their bottom lines. The scramble for large corporations to reorganize their supply chains would be something to see. There are also valid concerns over the Alien Tort Statute being applied too broadly to foreign corporations and how that might complicate foreign relations. But the difficulty of changing the system is a testament to the necessity of that change, not its impossibility.

The widespread exploitation of laborers has transcended national boundaries for centuries. Protections for laborers should too. Though child labor only seems to be discussed as a feature of capitalism when it is in the United States, cases like this provide an opportunity for lawmakers to rethink corporations’ complicity in human rights violations overseas. Limiting the global system of exploiting children’s labor requires such a rethinking, as well as an acknowledgement of the normalization of child labor under capitalism.