News Brief: Media’s Credulous “Labor Shortage” Reporting Helps Lay Groundwork For Repealing Child Labor Laws
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: You can follow Citations Needed on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show if you like what we do through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. This is a Citations Needed News Brief, which we do in between our regularly scheduled full length episodes, Adam, and this time, on this News Brief, we really want to talk about — you know what’s coming back in full force in the US? — we’re bringing back the breaker boys, Adam, we’re bringing back child labor.
Adam: Yeah, so this is a story that ties into something we’ve covered before, which is the labor shortage media trope as this kind of shorthand to pretty much justify any bad corporate decision or gutting of social welfare.
Adam: Episode 135 that we did back in April of 2021, we were a little ahead of the game on that one. It’s still with us, this idea of labor shortage is still with us.
Nima: No one wants to work anymore, Adam, people either have too much money in their pocket, stimulus checks, no fear of eviction or student debt looming so heavily that their lives may not be as precarious as they need to be, and therefore they are not willing to do the work that needs to be done while actually why are there quote-unquote “labor shortages?” Well, the jobs aren’t good enough.
Adam: Well, yeah, so there are many complex reasons, but the idea that there’s a labor shortage is kind of a cheap shorthand that doesn’t really explain what’s going on or the fact that wages are refusing to keep up with the needs of workers, e.g. largely inflation, and so now that labor shortage narrative as a true kind of media parasite is now sucked on to a new host of toxic right-wing ideology, in this case, the rolling back of the watering down of child labor laws. So back in September of last year, the wife and I, Sarah, were driving through Wisconsin, just north of Illinois, for those who don’t know, or aren’t in the United States.
Nima: It sounds lovely.
Adam: It’s very nice, you go there in the fall to apple-pick or whatever, right? We were doing some wholesome family shit. And we stopped to get a bite to eat at a diner, as one does, and we walk in and the host looks like she’s 12, and the waiter looks like they’re 15, and of course, were not actually 12, but they were 14 and 15 years old.
Nima: And there was no more ‘Help Wanted’ sign in the window.
Adam: Right, because we looked it up, and Wisconsin has some of the more liberal child labor laws. So Sarah looked into it, and she realized that one of the things that conservative groups within Wisconsin had been doing, as well as Ohio and New Jersey, and as we’ll talk about a little later, Iowa, and they attempted it in Minnesota but it didn’t go anywhere, because that’s a Democratic-controlled state, although Democrats are helping some of this, so we’ll get to that as well, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which is a front lobbying group for the restaurant and retail and other kind of low wage job industries, has been using the labor shortage justification to push child labor law since basically the beginning of 2021. Right when the sort of pandemic was kind of settling and people were looking for various angles, and they had extended the hours that 14 year olds and extended the place 14-year-olds could work in Wisconsin. Similar bills have emerged. Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday magazine, co-published a piece for The American Prospect looking into this particular instance. This was back in October of last year. Since then, many other publications have noted a surge in child-labor-watering-down measures that have swept through various state legislatures. Lawmakers in Iowa and Minnesota have introduced legislation. The Minnesota ones are not really going anywhere. The Iowa one looks like it’ll probably pass because they have, it’s Republican controlled. The Iowa law in particular is quite egregious. So here’s a rundown of recent legislation as of mid March, if this changed since then, apologies, but this is kind of the thrust of it. This is according to Axios, Iowa lawmakers are considering Republican legislation that would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work in industrial laundry services and freezers at meatpacking plants, it also prevents many of them from receiving workers compensation if they were injured or killed on the job. So that’s important because it provides a really, really broad blanket corporate indemnification, which is obviously very controversial. So not only do they get that they have children, but they’re now protected from workman’s comp and other other liability claims for children who die while engaging in industrial laundry services and meatpacking plants. Republicans and Democrats in Ohio are considering removing a cap on the number of hours children as young as 14 can work during the school year as long as they have a guardian who approves. Again, part of the New York Times expose was a bit slippery as to what this term ‘guardian’ is, but we’ll set that aside, and again, children aren’t slaves of their parents, but that’s a different question.
Nima: Yeah, so just to clarify, Adam is referring to an investigation by reporter Hannah Dreier published in the New York Times on February 25, 2023, that exposed numerous American companies’ use of, and brutal treatment and exploitation of, immigrant child laborers across the country. The piece is part of a larger New York Times series on migrant child labor, and the February 25 piece in particular, which is headlined “Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.,” includes this devastating opening. Quote:
These workers are part of a new economy of exploitation: Migrant children, who have been coming into the United States without their parents in record numbers, are ending up in some of the most punishing jobs in the country, a New York Times investigation found. This shadow work force extends across industries in every state, flouting child labor laws that have been in place for nearly a century. Twelve-year-old roofers in Florida and Tennessee. Underage slaughterhouse workers in Delaware, Mississippi and North Carolina. Children sawing planks of wood on overnight shifts in South Dakota.
Largely from Central America, the children are driven by economic desperation that was worsened by the pandemic. This labor force has been slowly growing for almost a decade, but it has exploded since 2021, while the systems meant to protect children have broken down.
The Times spoke with more than 100 migrant child workers in 20 states who described jobs that were grinding them into exhaustion, and fears that they had become trapped in circumstances they never could have imagined. The Times examination also drew on court and inspection records and interviews with hundreds of lawyers, social workers, educators and law enforcement officials.
In town after town, children scrub dishes late at night. They run milking machines in Vermont and deliver meals in New York City. They harvest coffee and build lava rock walls around vacation homes in Hawaii. Girls as young as 13 wash hotel sheets in Virginia.
We’ll be digging into this a bit more later on in this News Brief as well.
Adam: Yeah, so in Minnesota, the Republicans introduced a bill that would have allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to work in construction or building site projects but that was killed in committee, to be clear, that did not go anywhere. Unlike the Iowa bill which is believed that it will pass. And New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, Democrat, last year signed bipartisan legislation that allows people 16 and up to work 50 hours a week during summer break if their parents slash people who own them give the approval.
Nima: Based on the 1700s British —
Adam: Logic of what children are, right.
Nima: The same bill says kids need their parents’ permission to serve alcohol if they work in, say, a bar or a restaurant, but it is allowed with permission.
Adam: Right. This is like people who do the child marriages, okay, as long as you have the parents’ permission as if that’s the relevant criteria, like they’re just property of their parents, and allows them to now drive to work by allowing people as young as 14-and-a-half years old to get a driver’s license, and it would let kids under 16 work now until 9pm instead of 7pm, and quitting time would be extended during the summer months from 9pm to 11pm. So during school days now kids can work till 9pm.
Adam: Yeah so these industry groups, retail lobbyists, the chambers of commerce, and the National Restaurant Association, and various states have been lobbying to water down child labor laws. Now, this desire, this need, as I noted in an article I wrote for my Substack on March 15, the efforts to push child labor laws preexist COVID. But of course, the COVID and the subsequent quote-unquote “labor shortage” provided the relevant pretext.
Nima: It provides an excuse for this to be policy that is then pushed, it is not policy born of necessity, it’s policy that exploits a current situation created by corporate greed and profiteering.
Adam: They don’t want to raise wages to pay workers who are demanding better working conditions and higher pay, they don’t have enough immigrants coming in, because the same Republican Party wants to shut down the border and have people starve in the fucking desert with their children. So they don’t have a sufficient amount of cheap immigrant labor. And they’re certainly not going to pay their supposedly beloved white man more money. So the only solution is to expand the labor pools, always the basis of every worker shortage is panic, right? The job is to either create subsidies for companies to get the government to subsidize their own training and hiring or it’s to expand the labor pool by lowering work standards, safety standards and labor standards, and so all these media outlets, even ones that were sort of nominally critical of the policies themselves kept carrying water for the labor shortage. Axios headline wrote, “Lawmakers target child labor laws to ease labor shortage.” Business Insider writes, “Instead of paying adults more, some states might let companies hire kids as young as 14,” which is a great headline, but then it says, here’s the headline, “Instead of paying adults more, some states might let companies hire kids as young as 14 to fill the labor shortage.” So they have a sort of quip at the beginning about not wanting to pay adults more, which is good.
Nima: But then they still take at face value the fact that there’s a labor shortage.
Adam: Yeah, they take it at face value. New York magazine’s Eric Levitz, quote, “The U.S. Is Choosing Child Labor Over More Immigration.” The piece repeatedly repeats this labor shortage framing. Levitz writes, quote:
On storefronts throughout the U.S., “Help Wanted” signs have become about as ubiquitous as the stars and stripes. Today, there are roughly two job openings for every unemployed American.
This historic labor shortage is propping up inflation as desperate employers raise wages to attract scarce workers, then boost prices to compensate for higher costs. Or at least this is what the U.S.’s top economic policy-makers believe.
Now, Levitz is correct that there are two job openings for every unemployed person or roughly .5 unemployed persons per job opening, seasonally adjusted, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but this isn’t that much different than the .6 unemployed persons per job the BLS reported in November of 2022, which is not that far off from the .8 unemployed persons from October of 2019. So at some point between .6 unemployed persons per job, which we saw just four months ago, during the height of this so-called labor shortage or the .8 that existed in October of 2019, before COVID-19, presumably when you cross the threshold from .7 then child labor becomes justified.
Nima: Yeah, you didn’t know that, you didn’t know that in the 1938 FDR Labor Standards Act that’s the threshold. If it’s .7 then you get to do child labor again.
Adam: Shouldn’t our supposedly savvy pundits and labor reporters, who again, some of these pieces are skeptical of child labor, or at least that kind of handwringing, liberal ‘what is to be done’ way, right? They’re not calling for anyone to be arrested or indicted. The New York Times piece accepts the premise of a labor shortage, because again, it creates an inciting incident that then sort of justifies these horrible right-wing policies. Now, the labor shortage has been used since pretty much early 2021 to suppress worker wages, gut pandemic related aid programs like enhanced unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, it has been used to justify ending snap and snap extensions just as recently as last month, it’s been used to push back against union organizing, it’s been used to end eviction moratoriums. Basically the labor shortage as a sort of trope is a skeleton key for whatever horrible anti worker thing one wishes to jam down people’s throats, and so now it’s of course being used as justification for child labor, rather than what it is, which is either a formal or informal capital strike for people just simply don’t want to pay more. They would rather use either legal or illegal child labor as the New York Times exposed thousands of cases of illegal child immigrant labor, they’re already doing this, they just would rather make it legal so they don’t have to pay the fines.
Nima: Right. They’re going to legalize the thing they’re doing rather than having to either pay fines or pay workers more. I mean, part of this is also so plainly about not wanting better jobs to exist, right? That there is this give in, this kind of Econ 101 give in, just state of nature, where there needs to be jobs that pay shit, that treat people like shit, because they are imagined by some, who are pushing these policies, to be merely kind of transitory positions between being a kid, and then you work in McDonald’s for a few years, and you learn what it’s like to have a job, and then you go on to get your real job, and this entire premise exists to bolster this idea that these quote-unquote “low wage” quote-unquote “unskilled,” these patronizing terms, these kinds of jobs, are merely transitory, they don’t need protections, they don’t need better pay, people don’t have them for that long, and if you do then there’s something wrong with you, not the job. So, it’s laundering all of this ideology through the basic kind of given premise, which is obviously not a given, that there is a just natural labor shortage because of all these fucking handouts people have it too good, they’re being too picky, and we need to change that, and there are different ways that this can be solved. The current right-wing American way is to loosen or gut or get rid of child labor laws but the more liberal way, Adam, as you pointed out in your piece that we can turn back to Eric Levitz from New York Magazine’s Intelligencer, there is a different way and that is about immigration, right? So it kind of combines economics and labor and immigration into this thing and this is the supposedly liberal position and let me now quote, again, from Eric Levitz, his piece from New York Magazine, quote:
On paper, this does not look like a difficult policy problem to solve. A precocious grade-schooler wouldn’t need much time to ascertain the basic answer: If the U.S. expands immigration opportunities for international workers, our labor shortage and Central Americans’ economic woes should ease simultaneously. After all, there is no ‘skills’ mismatch between economically desperate Central Americans and open U.S. positions. The U.S.’s labor shortage is concentrated in fields that do not require an extensive education. The U.S. needs more kitchen staff, construction workers, and delivery drivers. Central America is home to a large number of people with the interest in and capacity to perform those roles. Opportunities for ‘win-win’ policy-making are rarely so clear-cut.
Adam: Yeah, so the solution is of course not to pay more, it’s to have more exploited immigrant labor.
Nima: Exactly. Expanded immigration is just a labor exploitation program now.
Adam: Which is better than letting them die in the desert I suppose but why don’t we welcome more immigrants and also pay them more, that would be the actual solution for a humane society, rather than being like, ‘Oh, we have this cheap, exploitable labor, why don’t we have the immigrants do it instead of our white babies?’ And it’s like, yeah, I don’t know. Why don’t we just pay people more? That seems like a better solution.
Nima: Also, to be fair, Adam, Levitz does something else, and he’s kind of our punching bag for this News Brief I guess, but let me read a different excerpt from his piece from New York Magazine. This kind of brings into the domestic economic fold the stumbling, bumbling Empire trope that we’ve talked about before. So here’s Eric Levitz writing about why child labor laws are perhaps being rolled back, quote:
The first prong of this policy is open and intentional. The Federal Reserve has made no secret of its belief that beating inflation will require killing jobs and lowering wages. The second prong is a different story. U.S. officials have stumbled into what is in essence a child-labor trafficking policy, the cruelty and irrationality of which derive from negligence rather than intention.
Adam: So this is peak liberal pathologizing. Nobody really wanted us to have a child labor regime, again as exposed by the New York Times in the tens of thousands. Never mind that we literally almost never enforce laws against child exploitation, child labor, never mind the fact that everybody knows it’s going on these large corporations, Whole Foods, Target, all the companies mentioned in the New York Times expose, they all knew they were using third-party contractors that use child labor. Everybody knew it. Regulators knew it, but everyone kind of looked the other way or did a little slap on the wrist here and there. Because, as the first segment of that paragraph makes very clear, which is political elites in Washington needed to come up with ways of driving down wages, and one way to drive down wages is to lighten the touch on the enforcement of child labor laws, because that weakens labor more broadly. Now, again, I think it’s fair to say that if Trump did this, we wouldn’t have stumbled into a child-labor-trafficking policy.
Nima: Stumbling and bumbling. It would be very intentional. Clearly, this was the point.
Adam: Yeah. So of course, they knew what was going on. Of course, everyone knows that this is a fact of corporate America. Corporate America certainly knows it’s going on. They know they get fines here and there that are tokens. They’re aware that it exists. But I guess as long as it’s not intentional, right?
Nima: Right. ‘We didn’t really mean it.’
Adam: Yeah. If I’m the subject of the cruelty, whether or not the cruelty is the point, as the buzzword has been since 2016, doesn’t really seem to matter to me, like your intentions are sort of secondary to the fact that I’m still being trafficked into low-paying child labor. So again, this sort of stumbling child-labor-trafficking section was somewhat telling, because again, I think it speaks to this kind of broader wonkish, it’s basically just kind of a Matt Yglesias knockoff routine, where it’s like, there’s these things that happen, there’s nothing that can really be done about it, but we should have more liberal immigration policies, and no one really does politics anymore, we kind of just tinker around the edges. ‘Oh, and by the way, child labor has no real author, no one needs to go to prison. No one needs to get arrested. It’s just this thing that happens.’ You know, there’s the 6,500 word expose in the New York Times, but there’s no bad guy, except for some maybe low level brokers, like no corporations, no CEOs, nobody really needs to go to jail. We need to, you know what the Biden White House did the day after that story broke? They said they were going to ask Congress to increase fines. Oh, increase fines. Oh, well, watch out. Again, never mind the fact we’ve had a two year full blown meltdown over fucking shoplifting in San Francisco and other metropolitan areas, people screaming at the top of their lungs for longer prison and jail sentences, as I also wrote about, people that shoplift, but it’s overblown, right? No such demand for anyone to go to prison or jail from the kind of daily explainer, no mention from the White House that they were going to seek prisons or jails. So instead of kind of adding two and two together and being like, ‘Oh, well, really what the state legislators are trying to do is they’re trying to not legalize entirely, but legalize a great deal of shit corporations are already doing.’
Adam: So if they’re already doing it, if we know they’re already doing it, right, and it’s not just like some 15-year-old doing a paper route or whatever, right? This is, these are like, a lot of these are real jobs. These are hard jobs. These are 11pm jobs. These are operating meat locker jobs. They just want to weaken the labor pool, they want to make it more precarious. They want to make it younger, they’re easier to exploit, they’re easier to bully, they’re easier to boss around. To a great extent, again, not entirely, there are, you know, the New York Times reported children as young as 12, and we’re not talking about 12, but trust me if they could, they would, but to a great extent, you know, 60–70% of the shit they’re just trying to legalize what they’re already doing, and so these business groups in these various state legislators and their Republican allies, and to some extent, occasionally Democrats here and there, but it’s mostly driven by Republicans, to be fair, on a state level, again, the federal authorities have totally looked the other way, because they want to get down inflation, right?
Nima: Without actually talking about why there is inflation.
Adam: Well, that’s a whole different episode. But the point is, they’ve decided to use the blunt, brutal, anti-worker instrument of lowering wages, as Eric does point out. They’re just trying to legalize to great extent what they’re already doing or what they want to do, and so this raises the question of, well, then shouldn’t we interrogate the pretext of a labor shortage and what that even means, “labor shortage,” it’s become a total zombie phrase, it’s become a total, in the words of Orwell, a thought terminating cliche, it’s just this thing you say, oh, labor shortage, well, we got we got to do what we can for the labor shortage, you know, the boys are all fighting in World War I, and we got a labor shortage, so we got to, and women got a pitch. And it’s like, what? No, like, we went from point A to point six, this is not a catastrophic change.
Nima: Yeah. Roll up your sleeves people. Well, yeah. And I mean, as you write in your piece, I’m going to quote you back to you, I think you put it really well, Adam, quote:
With rare exception, there is no employer who cannot hire enough people at the right wage. What employers call a ‘labor shortage’ is ‘the pool of applicants is too small and thus I have less leverage to drive down wages’ problem.
You also quote Peter Greene writing in Forbes in 2019, he was writing really about, as you note, the related myth of a teacher shortage, another thing we’ve talked about on the show before, but it is applicable here, of course, as well as a broader kind of labor shortage trope. Greene wrote this, quote:
It’s a severe lack of incentives — wages, unions, benefits — needed to entice workers to take on the difficult work: You can’t solve a problem starting with the wrong diagnosis. If I can’t buy a Porsche for $1.98, that doesn’t mean there’s an automobile shortage. If I can’t get a fine dining meal for a buck, that doesn’t mean there’s a food shortage. And if appropriately skilled humans don’t want to work for me under the conditions I’ve set, that doesn’t mean there’s a human shortage.
Adam: Yeah, if you throw a party and four people show up that’s not a friend shortage, that’s an I have a problem shortage.
Nima: You need a better party, man.
Adam: Yeah, you smell, or people don’t like you, or you’re hostile, or you go on political rants and you alienate your friends.
Nima: I mean, for example —
Adam: Someone named John Adamson, theoretically speaking. I think that’s why we keep having a labor shortage. It’s like, you know, okay, like, there are certain stresses in the economy, as we know, you know, half a million people, according to one study out of the workforce, because of COVID there are legitimate kind of strains on the labor force, but again, going from point A to point six doesn’t seem like a catastrophic situation, doesn’t seem like now’s the time to take off the child labor laws of 1937 and dust them off, you know, go to the back of the room in the statehouse and be like, ‘Oh, I gotta go back to the to the Child Labor Act of 1904.’ That doesn’t seem like this is that urgent so when Levitz says this fatuous window dressing about ‘Oh, there’s, you know, there’s a help wanted sign in every restaurant,’ it’s like, yeah, okay, but the Wall Street Journal just had a report about ghost jobs, that 1/3 of all job postings are phantom. They’re posted by employers to make their employees think they’re looking for jobs to help them, but really, they’re fake. People have incentive to constantly look for applicants. There’s a ton of anecdotal evidence that this so called job shortage is dubious, and if we’re going to use it as a pretext or justification or front load an article about the urgent need for child labor with this labor shortage, I beg reporters just interrogate the concept even a little bit, challenge it, problematize it, question it. Because it’s the entire basis for why they’re doing it, rather than saying, ‘Oh, they’re just greedy corporations. This isn’t, their job is to get legislative victories where they can to weaken labor where they can, to weaken child labor and safety standards, and anything that cuts into their aggregate profits. They’re going to find any opportunity to exploit that. So maybe, just maybe they’re using this specter of labor shortage to do that.
Nima: No way, man. That doesn’t fit in a headline, though. So that’s annoying to talk about. If you accept the premise, then you get to move on to, you know, scolding the lawmakers who are trying to push these policies without ever having to investigate or interrogate the premise on which this entire thing is built.
Adam: Yeah, because a lot, a lot of ideological work is done when you just accept the reason for something, right?
Nima: Everyone knows that no one can fill jobs, and then you’re like, oh, so what are the different solutions, right, what does the Fed think? What do economists think?
Adam: So the solution is what? We get to exploit more Central American immigrants?
Adam: I don’t know, we should be wanting these Central American immigrants to come and join unions, and to engage politically with worker power and to uplift their working standards, not just saying, ‘Well, let’s plug it in for the kiddos.’
Nima: Yeah, exactly. And so it’s all just kind of sparring over already horrific narratives, and trying to come up with, you know, who’s going to be the least cruel in a kind of admittedly given cruel system? Do you know what I mean? without ever trying to make the system less cruel.
Adam: Yeah. Nothing we can do about it. It’s just the way it is.
Nima: That’s just the way things are, and let’s talk around the edges there, and politicians and their spokespeople in media really do help reinforce each other on this. And hey, Adam, that’s kind of the whole premise of our show here. So that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. Thank you all for listening and for supporting the show. Of course, you can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated, not just because we are grateful for it, but it keeps the show going. We have no commercials, no advertisers, no corporate sponsors, no philanthropic grants, we don’t do anything like that. We are 100 percent supported by listeners like you. So help us out if you can. But that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. We will be back very soon with another full length episode, so stay tuned for that. Until then, thanks again. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks once again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, April 12, 2023.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.