Child labour returns in the ‘advanced’ capitalist countries

Child labour – a horror described by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist, which is still rampant in countries ravaged by imperialism to this day – is returning to the advanced capitalist countries, where it had been regarded as a scourge of the past. As capitalism continues to rot, it is taking the youngest all over the world with it.

Reports of child labour have surfaced in the belly of the beast itself: the United States. In Alabama, the brief disappearance of a 13 year-old migrant child from her family home triggered an investigation, which led authorities to find not only her, but her two brothers aged 12 and 15, in the SMART Alabama LLC plant owned by Hyundai, which supplies car parts for the latter’s flagship plant in the US.

Since 2013, the plant has been charged at least $48,515 in penalties as a result of parts of the factory being deemed unsafe with crushing and amputation hazards. Children as young as 12 have been found working in these conditions, despite the plant supposedly following the law on recruitment practices. As in other large companies, the plant absolves itself by pointing to the fact that it outsources hiring to recruitment agencies.

According to Reuters, the use of child labour was no one-off ‘accident’: “one former worker at SMART, an adult migrant who left for another auto-industry job last year, said there were around 50 underage workers between the different plant shifts, adding that he knew some of them personally. Another former adult worker at SMART, a US citizen who also left the plant last year, said she worked alongside about a dozen minors on her shift”.

This is how the capitalist class responds to a labour shortage. Instead of raising wages to ‘incentivise’ workers to work at their factory – as the market is ‘supposed’ to work – many are turning to that cheap, relatively untapped source of labour: children. In order to meet profit targets, bosses are sweeping the age of workers under the rug.

Oliver twist Image Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad de SevillaConditions reminiscent of Oliver Twist, already prevalent in underdeveloped countries, are on the rise in the 'advanced' capitalist nations / Image: Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad de Sevilla

In the aforementioned article, Reuters spoke to the children’s father who was candid about their situation: “The family needed any income it could get at the time.” These are the sort of heart-rending conditions one can read about in Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England written in 1845. Loving parents, who know their children should be in school and wish to send them there, are being put in a position where they simply cannot refuse another income in the household.

The previously mentioned Hyundai plant is far from an isolated case of child labour being used in the advanced capitalist world. McDonald’s had to pay $25,000 in penalties for employing minors at three different locations in California, breaching protocol by employing these minors in hazardous work where they had to load and operate indoor trash compactors. And in October 2021, the US Wisconsin Senate proposed a bill to lengthen the workday for teenagers under 16 years-old. In 2021 in the UK, 5,486 children were identified as victims of modern slavery (trafficking, criminal work, forced labour).

Whilst child labour is quietly on the rise at home, the political representatives of the capitalist system in the US attempt to flaunt their ‘moral superiority’ on the issue abroad. In 2019, for instance, a ban was proposed on cocoa from the Ivory Coast where plantations were found to have taken on forced child labour. And of course, even this moralising never went beyond words, because US companies are directly implicated in the use of child labour around the world. The proposed ban never came into effect, and in 2021 the US Supreme Court even went on to block child slavery lawsuits against chocolate firms Nestlé and Cargill.

In Brazil, children are working in the acai berry industry, where they are known as peconheiros (acai pickers). The job requires climbing up to 65 feet in the air on thin trunks. While adults may snap the trees, children are apparently perfect to make the climb. The market for acai is currently profitable, with profits predicted to reach into the billions of USD by 2026.

Whilst Unicef declared 2021 the ‘International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour’, the reality is that by the end of 2022 there will be up to 169 million children working across the world, with 79 million of these children undertaking what is deemed to be hazardous work. 70% of these children are employed in the agricultural sector on farms and plantations. They are often exposed to toxic agrochemicals leading to both physical and cognitive damage, spurring on conditions such as asthma, dermatitis, learning disabilities, leukaemia, brain tumours and certain childhood cancers. This is not to mention other traumatising effects of such work such as serious hazards, exposure to sexual and physical abuse, separation from their families, and lack of education.

Unicef have launched a “Call to Action” campaign which, we quote, “recommends ending… functional dependence on child labour” and that “poverty cannot be a reason that children are not in schools”. But there can be no appeal to the moral, goodness-of-heart of the capitalists – there is no kinder face for the capitalist system, a system based on plunder, exploitation and oppression.

As Marx explained: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole” (Marx, Capital Vol. 1). The capitalist class has access to billions of workers across the world who own nothing apart from the ability to sell their own labour-power, including hundreds of millions of children, who form the cheapest and most vulnerable section of their workforce.

Only a socialist revolution which would expropriate the wealth of the capitalist class and the common, democratic ownership of the means of production, with the majority of society planning production, can give all children a free and healthy development into adulthood, with access to free education, and the proper nutrition and resources needed to ensure healthy and happy childhoods.