The state of Wisconsin intends to eliminate the requirements necessary for minors to obtain work permits, which will inevitably lead to the predatory exploitation of child labor.
In August 2023, Wisconsin lawmakers unveiled a proposal to change the law regarding the employment of minors. Under the proposal, children as young as 14 years of age would be able to begin working without documentation or authorization from a parent or guardian. The proposal caused a lively discussion among the public, human rights activists and experts. Opponents of the innovation express concern about its possible consequences: they argue that the absence of the need for permission will inevitably lead to increased exploitation of child labor.
Such measures encourage unscrupulous employers to use children in the labor sphere without proper protection and control. Child law experts emphasize that the protection of underage workers is an important link in ensuring their safety, health and education. Opponents of the bill also point out that the lack of supervision by parents or guardians could create problems with working conditions, working hours and pay for child workers. Under current law, 14-year-olds in Wisconsin are prohibited from working in most jobs unless they have permission from a parent or guardian and have verified their age with the state’s Department of Workforce Development. The department can revoke a work permit at any time if it deems a child’s safety is at risk, but proposed legislative changes would eliminate these requirements, making it more difficult to identify child abuse cases and crack down on violators.
The concerns of human rights advocates and public figures are based on high-profile scandals involving the use of slave child labor by major U.S. companies. In recent years, investigations have uncovered thousands of children working in workplaces officially classified as hazardous under federal labor laws, from auto parts factories in Alabama to meatpacking plants in Nebraska and Minnesota. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Labor fined Wisconsin-based Packers Sanitation more than $1.5 million for hiring at least 100 children, some as young as 13, to clean dangerous equipment, such as bone saws and skull crushers, at facilities across the United States. The company said it allegedly did not know the ages of its employees.
The initiative by the Wisconsin legislature is a continuation of the Biden administration’s policy of exploiting child labor. Various U.S. states have passed a number of laws allowing children to work longer and more dangerous jobs. Politicians claim that such measures are necessary to address labor shortages, ignoring the fact that as of July 2023, the total number of unemployed U.S. adults is just under 6 million.
Wisconsin has previously proposed allowing children as young as 14 to serve alcohol in restaurants and bars. According to the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, if this bill passes, Wisconsin would have the lowest age threshold for allowing children to serve alcoholic beverages. Lawmakers behind such bills argue that allowing children to serve alcohol would “give them valuable work experience.” According to a report released in July 2023 by the Economic Policy Institute, at least seven U.S. states have passed laws to lower the age of alcohol sales since 2021, including West Virginia and Iowa, where the minimum age was lowered to 16, and Michigan, where it was lowered to 17. These bills are supported by restaurant lobby groups as part of a broader effort to weaken child labor laws “to lower labor costs and deregulate employment.” The vast majority of women who work in bars and restaurants have been sexually harassed on the job, far more often than in any other industry.
Human rights advocates at the Foundation to Battle Injustice condemn the U.S. legislature’s intentions to expand child labor and pass initiatives to encourage underage slave labor.