Editor’s Desk: The food sector’s shameful record on child labor

U.S. law allows children as young as 12 to work in agriculture, including tobacco farms, with a parent’s permission, as long as they do not miss school. © 2015 Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch. Published under Creative Commons.

By Brent Cunningham

The use of illegal child labor in U.S. workplaces—something many Americans probably thought had been largely squashed at the turn of the last century— has been all over the news in recent weeks, driven by the Department of Labor’s announcement, in February, that the number of child-labor violations had risen 69 percent since 2018.

Much of the media coverage that flowed from that announcement included anecdotes of underage workers in restaurants, grocery stores and other food-related businesses. FERN staff writer Teresa Cotsirilos decided to take a closer look at the investigation data compiled by Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which is responsible for enforcing child-labor laws, to see just how big of an issue this is for the nation’s food sector. 

What she found was stunning: More than 75 percent of violations compiled by the Wage and Hour Division since 2018 were committed by companies that grow, package, deliver, cook, sell and serve our food. 

As Cotsirilos explains, “The agency uncovered more than 12,000 child labor violations in the nation’s food system, out of 16,000 total violations across all industries. Investigators found minors working illegally at … every step of the food supply chain, from farm to table.” Those numbers, we learn, are almost certainly an undercount.
This is a story FERN was founded to produce—an investigation into a shameful abuse of power in America’s food system. If you appreciate this kind of accountability journalism, please consider a donation. As always, we can’t do it without your help.