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’60 Minutes’ report filled with cruel irony


’60 Minutes’ report filled with cruel irony

May 22, 2023 | 4:00 am ET
By George Ayoub
’60 Minutes’ report filled with cruel irony
Grace Abbott Park in Grand Island, Neb., is named for a woman who fought child labor practices and advocate for immigrants. (George Ayoub)

I played Little League baseball at Grace Abbott Park, a triangular stretch of green and trees between State and 17th Streets in north central Grand Island. The park was named after Grand Islands own Dr. Grace Abbott, an activist who worked tirelessly in the early 20th century in the fight against child labor and for the protection of immigrants.

So I was neither the first nor the last to see the cruel irony in a 60 Minutes” report on immigrant children — middle schoolers — working through the night for a company called PSSI to clean JBS Swift, a massive meatpacking plant in Grand Island.

Teachers reported the abuse after the children came to school with acid burns and couldnt stay awake in class. PSSI initially feigned ignorance but eventually admitted to making mistakes. JBS Swift has since fired the company.

As the piece indicated, however, Grand Island was only one of 13 plants across the nation where immigrant children were being used to clean meatpacking plants. Moreover, some states are moving to loosen child labor laws, first administered in this country by Abbott. She wrote a series of articles called “Within the Citys Gates,” for the Chicago Evening Post, in which she called for an end to the exploitation of immigrants. She continued her crusade, later writing The Immigrant and the Community,” published in 1917.

Lawmakers might do well to reread her work. Arkansas and Iowa are among a number of states that have introduced or passed recent laws that lessen restrictions on child labor. Arkansas kids 14 and 15 no longer need a permit from the state Division of Labor to be employed. In Iowa, children as young as 14 with a parent’s permission and a nod to an education program can now work in construction, including roofing and demolition. They can work longer hours, too, eliminating former restrictions. With a parents permission, a 16- or 17-year-old Iowan will now be able to serve alcohol in restaurants.  Jackhammers and Jim Beam are now OK in Iowa for kids, but legislators drew the line on pasties. No one under 18 can work in a strip joint.

Proponents’ arguments range from reducing bureaucracy to giving kids expanded opportunities to make a buck, perhaps even to help the family. Maybe, too, teach them some of the soft skill gifts of gainful employment. They also argue that welcoming younger and younger workers among us expands the labor force, a solution to post-pandemic shortages.

Thats all probably true. Still, you could make the same arguments for seventh grade immigrants using pressurized hoses to spray scalding water while navigating a slick kill floor in the middle of the night just inches from machines designed to rend cattle: Expand opportunities, help struggling families make ends meet, learn teamwork and communication and fill jobs that few would ever consider. Oh, and then get up in the morning for school.

On the way to legally boosting our economic fortunes using children, we broke the law at a rapid pace. In 2015 the U.S. Department of Labor found just a tick over 1,000 minors were employed in violation of child labor laws. Seven years later that number was 3,876, more than a threefold increase, which some states solved simply by diminishing the laws.

Closer to home, a bill related to young workers was introduced this session in the Nebraska Legislature. Legislative Bill 15 would establish something called a youth minimum wage” for workers aged 14-17, increasing each year but remaining only a fraction of what adult workers will earn per hour, which, in 2026, becomes $15.

One wonders why workers 14-17, performing the same tasks as their adult co-workers, should earn only two-thirds of what their older fellow employees do? Perhaps, the answer is why LB 15 has yet to pass.

Aside from the irony in the 60 Minutes” report emanating from Grand Island, I find it paradoxical that schools today are limiting or outright banning the reading of books and the studying of actual American history lest we expose young minds to dangerous ideas. Yet, when it comes to the workplace, we cant seem to get them started too soon around rebar and booze. One wonders what Abbott would have thought.

When youre 10, all you want is a base hit and some ice cream after the game. Who knew from Grace Abbott? Still, over 60 years later, Little Leaguers on State Street might be playing alongside the very kids she tried to protect from adults.