Wisconsin’s child labor bill epitomizes decaying US power
Published: Oct 26, 2021 12:13 AM
Children protest to demand M&M Mars candy company stop sourcing cocoa from suppliers using child labor in Chicago. Photo: AFP

Children protest to demand M&M Mars candy company stop sourcing cocoa from suppliers using child labor in Chicago. Photo: AFP

Recently, a country's local legislative body approved a bill allowing 14-year-olds to work as late as 11 pm. Some may think this was a case in a country that is not well developed. But actually, it was the state of Wisconsin of the US. For context, the US is the only UN member state that hasn't ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The US, which prides itself on being a "beacon of democracy" and a guardian of human rights, is undergoing a major regression. 

The bill approved by Wisconsin's Senate on October 20 allows 14-year-olds to work until much later than current laws allow: from 6 am to 9:30 pm on days before a school day, and 6 am to 11 pm when the next day isn't a school day.

The US remains at the bottom of the world in terms of protecting the rights of children. According to US federal child labor laws, people under the age of 16 can only work between 7 am and 9 pm from June 1 to Labor Day, and between 7 am and 7 pm for the rest of the year. The current laws are already shocking enough. But Wisconsin's bill is even worse. Since Washington cannot even protect the most vulnerable groups (children, women, the elderly, and so on) in the US, this begs a key question: How can it be qualified to keep talking about protecting human rights internationally?

Supporters (especially hotel and tourism industry lobbyists) of Wisconsin's bill say it could help plug the state's labor shortage. But in fact, the US is facing waves of unemployment, resignations, strikes, and labor shortages. This abnormal phenomenon reflects the structural imbalance in the US labor market. And this imbalance is the result of long-existing social problems. It cannot be solved by adjusting child labor laws. On the contrary, the state of Wisconsin has decided to pass a bill to legalize the violation of children's rights instead of protecting their rights to grow up healthily and be well educated. The harm it will cause to the future of the US is way more serious than solving the current labor shortage. Other US states could copy-cat it. 

Most jobs that children can and need to be hired to do until late are low-paid physical works such as washing dishes and scrubbing floors in restaurants. By using children who need to be educated and to grow up healthily to fill such labor vacancies, it will only make the poor children who are forced to choose these jobs even poorer in the future. As they lose their basic rights to grow healthily and receive education, these kids will not be able to become qualified workers. Instead, they will gradually become a group of people who muddle along. In other words, they will become destabilizing factors for American society.

President Biden is desperately keen to wield the power of example globally. But the hard reality is this: Today's America is an example of a decaying power. In a sense, this kind of legislation about child labor will actually solidify the disparity between different classes in Wisconsin, and across the US. Most of the people who do the grassroots works are of ethnic minorities and immigrants. Such a bill might harm the interests of these groups legislatively, widening the social gap. These ethnic groups are already in a downward spiral, and this bill reflects a trend that will accelerate this spiral, creating even more serious social problems for the US.

If something like this happens in China or other countries to which the US is hostile, there could be a moral carnival for US media outlets. They will use eye-catching headlines and fierce words such as "slavery" and "oppression" to attack those countries. But as it is actually happening in the US, only a few outlets pay attention. A handful of their bland reports can hardly attract the attention of the whole country. Unconsciously, the double standard of the US on such issues has harmed the US itself. It has lowered its own moral standards, making American society as a whole apathetic. 

If the young people are strong, the country will be strong. At the very least, US' failure to protect the rights and interests of the child will only harm the teenagers and their families. More broadly, it will affect the improvement of the whole country's moral fiber. This will cause irreparable damage to the US. As a result, the US decay will be accelerated as well.

The author is a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn