NYT Child Labor Report, Govt Response, Shows How Corporate Child Exploitation Is Simply Not a “Crime”
Concerned reporting, feigned outrage, more fines—then back to business as usual.
In contemporary American media culture, as I’ve noted before, the primary way one shows that they care, that they side with victims, that they’re outraged by a crime, is to demand long, punitive prison sentences. Carceral punishment is the grammar of empathy in our society. Or at least it is when the perpetrator isn’t rich. If they are, another standard applies. The standard of Feigned Concern followed by stiffer fines.
As I noted in a Twitter thread over the weekend, The New York Times’ expose by Hannah Dreier on the pervasiveness of child labor abuses in the United States, up significantly since the Covid-related “labor shortage,” is a useful entry point into a broader discussion as to how crime is not just constructed, but constructed in a way that serves the interests of capital while actively working against the worker and those at the bottom rung of our social latter.
The story, over 5,500 words, has a lot of excellent reporting and documentation, and I don’t want to view this has a criticism of the article (though I have those, more later)—but more of a critique of a broader media and moral ecosystem. Some transgressions are framed as “crime” in urgent need of more policing and caging, and other transgressions—often objectively far worse—are presented as abstract, civil, or process problems for which policing and incarceration are never presented, either by media or politicians, as the solution to the transgressions.
The Timese report never uses the word “crime” or “criminal,” and makes no mention of jail, prisons, or police. It cites no one else doing so, and the solutions it hints at involve simply enforcing more fines. Here we have literally thousands of cases of child exploitation, clear cut violations of laws meant to protect minors, and the suite of options to solve this outrageous problem are having the violators simply write the government a modestly larger check.
The obvious rejoinder to this would be: But it isn’t New York Times reporters’ job to discuss normative questions of how society ought to respond, only discuss how it reasonably and realistically would. But this is an inherently conservative professional norm: Limiting the scope of potential solutions to what those in power are already doing and have done for decades is Inertia Bias. By not even broaching a carceral solution to this widespread problem, Dreier reinforces a lot of ideological assumptions about which “crimes” ought to be punished with prison and which don’t.
Even if one grants this type of ideological work is not the purview of reporters (everyone knows how undignified it is, having an opinion), certainly it’s the purview of pundits. Indeed, saying what ought to happen, rather than simply describing the world, is their entire reason for existing. So, when New York Times policy wonk and prescriptive analyst David Leonhardt chimed in the next day, what did he suggest officials do to stem this corporate crime against children? Call for more policing? Longer sentences? Fund the police more to stop Whole Foods, Target, and J.Crew from exploiting 12 and 13 year olds? No, he vaguely called for more fine enforcement, writing that if “federal, state and local authorities put a higher priority on enforcing existing laws, they could reduce child labor.” Then, perversely, he called for more of a crackdown on undocumented immigration:
But solving the underlying problem — the recent surge of migration by both children and adults and the chaos created by it — is more vexing. Over the past few years, the number of child migrants entering the U.S. has soared for a combination of reasons. Parts of Latin America, including Honduras and Venezuela, have fallen into disarray, causing more people to leave these countries. The Covid pandemic exacerbated the desperation.
See, the “underlying problem” isn’t the unaccountable corporations hiding behind subcontractors to drive down wages, knowing, as the report makes clear, they use downstream child labor—it’s the existence of Unwanted Humans. The solution isn’t locking up any of the executives who keep using child abusers long after they’ve been fined and exposed as such. It’s not long criminal penalties, more policing, new criminal laws, or “tougher” DAs. No, it’s a vague process solution combined with victim blaming: the “underlying problem,” our official liberal policy wonks tell us, is the children shouldn’t be here in the first place.
And like that, a story of widespread corporate child abuse because a story about how we actually need to crack down more on immigration. Which brings us to one of the more pernicious paragraphs from Dreier’s report:
The shifting dynamics in Central America helped create a political crisis early in Mr. Biden’s presidency, when children started crossing the border faster than H.H.S. could process them. With no room left in shelters, the children stayed in jail-like facilities run by Customs and Border Protection and, later, in tent cities. The images of children sleeping on gym mats under foil blankets attracted intense media attention. The Biden administration pledged to move children through the shelter system more quickly…
[H.H.S.] began paring back protections that had been in place for years, including some background checks and reviews of children’s files, according to memos reviewed by The Times and interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees.
Again, there’s a lot to like about this reporting, but this section, politically, is extremely pat. And altogether morally incurious. The obvious implication being that to avoid the bad press resulting from images of migrant kids locked up, sleeping on the floor, the Biden administration was shoveling children out the door to any sponsor who would take them, and this increased child labor abuse. If only those immigration activists didn’t make such a fuss about “kids in cages.”
A potential third option: perhaps not keeping kids in cages or shipping them off to exploitative corporations to work 16 hour shifts was simply not an option. Or at least not one entertained by The Times or any of the subsequent coverage.
Back to the “solution”: Surely someone, in this age of “refund the police” and Tough on Crime 2.0, will call for stiffer criminal penalties, yes? This morning, the Biden White House announced a plan to “crack down” on child labor. The strategy, according to The New York Times? Tick up enforcement of fines and have the Department of Labor ask Congress to increase fines.
That’s it. That’s the response to thousands of cases of child exploitation. Of maimed 14 year olds caught in machines, dying on the job, dropping out of schools so they clean horse shit. More fines with greater frequency.
Compare this non-carceral, civil response to the media reaction to a modest increase in retail theft over the past two years: countless articles, op-eds, nonstop political speeches calling for stiffer penalties, “tougher” DA’s, and longer sentences. Indeed, making petty larceny a misdemeanor—and sometimes finable offense—in California has widely been used as shorthand for making it legal. By this logic, should one see all finable offenses as ways of making them de facto legal? For the destitute and poor, this isn’t true, an inability to pay a fine often results in jail time. But for large corporations and multi-millionaire subcontractors, these fines, as The Times' own reporting makes clear, are mostly seen as a cost of doing business. Why would increasing them 20 percent make them less of one? Why aren’t our leaders and pundits speaking in the language of careralism to show how much they care?
The point is not to advocate for locking up corporate offenders—this is a different debate for a different column (abolitionists have brought up important concerns about pursuing carceral solutions for targets of the Left, such as killer cops and polluting CEOs, but I don’t have time to unpack that here). The point is what our media and lawmakers consider a Cops and Cages crime and what’s a “hey, send us a check when you can” crime is entirely based on racist, selective, and status-quo-flattering logic appealing to norms and laws written by Capital over a 100 years ago.
The reality is we have two lanes of “justice” in our country, and they are uncritically echoed by our media. Steal property from CVS and it’s simply assumed this ought to result in long jail sentences and potentially longer prison sentences. Knowingly hire a 12 year old, help them lie about their age, and put them to work at a dangerous job 14 hours a day, and a faceless LLC gets a fine that’s a fraction of corporate profit. No one is denied liberty, dignity, humanity. No executive is ripped from their loved ones, thrown in jail pre-trial, sexually assaulted and beaten behind bars, forced to sleep on the floor in their own piss and blood. These outcomes are simply for the poor—for child exploiting corporations, it’s a stern talking to and a nominal fine that will impact the decision makers absolutely zero.
This is brilliant Adam. I was a bit worried after reading that story about ICE getting involved and more immigration crackdowns (which is definitely what will happen) but didn't think of it through the lense of two-tiered justice.