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An investigation by the United States Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division uncovered child labor violations across eight states, with over 100 employees — some as young as 13 years old — working 13-hour overnight shifts in meat processing facilities.

But is child labor is on the rise in America? Cases of child labor violations have fallen since the early 2000s. But from 2015 to 2022, the number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws rose by 283%, according to data from the US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.

What is child labor?

Child labor, sometimes referred to as oppressive child labor, is defined by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 as a condition of employment in which a worker is under the age of 16 in any occupation, or a worker between 16 and 18 years old is in any occupation deemed hazardous or detrimental to their health, well-being, or education.

In their child labor investigation, federal officials found that minors employed by Packers Sanitation Services Inc. used caustic chemicals to clean saws and other dangerous equipment — an example of a hazardous occupation.

However, there are some exceptions to the child labor definition. For instance, a parent or guardian employing their own child under the age of 16 in any occupation other than manufacturing or mining is not considered oppressive child labor.

The number of children illegally employed has been on the rise since 2015

  • In 2022, a total of 3,876 children were illegally employed, compared to 1,012 children in 2015.
  • From 2015-2022, the number of minors unlawfully employed in hazardous occupations increased by 94%.
  • In 2015, 355 children were illegally working in hazardous environments; in 2022, that number went up to 688 minors, according to the data.
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The Department of Labor has investigated more cases of child labor violations since 2015

There was also an uptick in the number of cases involving child labor violations. Between 2015 and 2022, the number of child labor cases investigated by the Department of Labor went up by 54% (with an average of five illegally employed children per case in 2022).

The number of cases in which minors were illegally employed in hazardous occupations increased from 189 in 2015 to 216 in 2022.

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Employers have paid more in civil penalties for child labor violations

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers that are caught violating child labor laws are subject to civil penalties. These fines can go as high as $50,000 per minor-aged employee if the child is seriously injured or killed on the job, or even up to $100,000 if violations “are determined to be willful or repeated,” in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

In 2022, employers across the US had to pay a total of $4.4 million in civil penalties for violating child labor laws. That’s a nearly $1 million increase from the year before (approximately $3.4 million in 2021).

From 2015 to 2022, the amount of civil penalties from child labor cases rose by roughly 215%.

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