Lewis Hine’s photograph of three young fish cutters working at the Seacoast Canning Co. in Eastport, Maine, documented child labor in the United States. (National Child Labor Committee collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
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 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.
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.
“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.
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.”
Children must be at least 14 in order to work, according to the Kansas Department of Labor, although there are exceptions for children employed by their parents, in farm work, or engaging in paper routes or nonhazardous work. The state requires work permits for those under 16 who are not enrolled or attending school. Federal and state laws also limit how many hours children can work.
Those under 16 can work up to three hours on a school day, for example, and no more than 40 hours in a non-school week.
In June, a U.S. District court ordered 17 Sonic locations in Kansas to stop violating child labor laws. It was the second time BBR Investments of Newton, which owns the restaurants, had been in trouble for allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to work longer hours than permitted, and at hours not allowed. Last year, the Labor Department assessed the company $42,000 in fines for the violations.
Why would companies risk such hefty sums for violating child labor laws?
Because it might be cheaper in the long run to pay the fines and keep employing children for lower wages than they could pay adults. While the underage Sonic employees may not have had it so bad in the scheme of things, the immigrant children made to clean slaughterhouses is the stuff that should make every stomach churn. Refer to saws and “headsplitters,” above. Some of these children, who may have arrived in the United States without parents or others to look after their interests, may not have had much choice but to take any job that was offered as a matter of survival.
Appallingly, many states are now racing to loosen — not tighten — child labor laws.
Arkansas, for example, in March did away with the requirement that the state’s Division of Labor had to give permission or verify the age of children under 16 to be employed. Although those under 14 still cannot be employed, the ending of age verification requirements is an invitation to child labor abuses.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in signing the new law, said the change was about removing an “arbitrary burden on parents” that required state permission for their children to work. But let’s get real. This isn’t about the rights of parents, it’s about helping businesses cope with the labor shortages in the wake of the pandemic. If you visited any fast food restaurant in the last three years, you’ve probably experienced worse service than in the past and seen the “help wanted’ and hiring bonus signs.
Other states are making similar moves.
Iowa, for example, has made it legal for teenagers to work in meatpacking plants and children as young as 16 to bartend. New Jersey and New Hampshire have also lowered ages for some types of work. The argument goes that work builds character and that overly restrictive laws prevent young people from fully developing their capacity to earn a living.
But such arguments stink like the stuff you find on a slaughterhouse floor.
If we don’t hold the line on child labor, we risk losing one of the things the has sets us apart as a nation founded not only on laws, but of morals. Of course children provide cheap labor, but business profits should not be the gauge of our society. In addition to the mental and physical tolls that children suffer in jobs that are inappropriate — and can you really imagine a 16-year-old wiping down the bar and asking what’s your poison? — there’s also a danger these children will become primary breadwinners for their families, with their educations coming a distant second.
When Jacob Riis came to Kansas in 1902, according the Emporia Republican, “he didn’t lecture — he just talked.” He wasn’t a great speaker, his mannerisms weren’t polished, his Danish accent pronounced.
“He had a story to tell, the mission of a man to explain,” the newspaper reported. “Everybody lost sight of his quick, jerky manner of expression and his foreign accent in their interest in this man and his story.” He was a “small, odd-looking but big-hearted naturalized American from New York.”
The story Riis told was one from the shadows, of a boy named Tony who was throwing mud at a church when he first met him because the kid was angry about the institutions he believed had failed him. Riis believed that lives could be changed by turning compassion for others into action.
Now, more than a hundred years later, we’re faced with a choice. We can either turn our faces away from the magic lantern of news showing us the great shadow army of illegal and undocumented workers, many of them children, or we can act to protect them.
Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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