When people hear my story of growing up as a child lumberjack, they are often shocked. "Child labor? In the United States?" They ask. For many years, I didn't understand. Working as a lumberjack wasn't child labor. It was what my family and community insisted it was: the perfect opportunity to develop resilience, a solid work ethic, and learn the virtues of self-reliance.
I possess all these things. I agree that age-appropriate work can teach children valuable skills. Still, when I stare at the grueling scar running down my leg and think back to the traumatic logging accident that nearly took my life, I have to ask. "Is there no other way?"
I've lived the last twenty-five with the physical and emotional consequences that come from working in an occupation 39 times more dangerous than average. And I'm only now beginning to see the difference between age-appropriate work and oppressive child labor. To me, oppressive child labor is work that deprives children of childhood, education, health, safety, or self-determination; or causes physical, mental, or social harm; or work in which the child is not the primary beneficiary.
Becoming clear on that definition now leaves me asking, "Child labor? In the United States?" Unfortunately, yes. Oppressive child labor is still an issue. And it's getting worse. According to the Department of Labor, the number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws has increased 283% since 2015, and the number of minors employed in hazardous occupations increased 94%. These numbers represent just a tiny fraction of the real numbers, most unreported and uninvestigated.
I’m troubled by the upsurge in violations. I’m haunted by the number of stories that go unnoticed. And I’m absolutely flabbergasted at how, at a time when violations are increasing, 14 states are introducing or passing laws rolling back the child labor protections our predecessors fought for.
Now that I can see my experiences for what they were, I am committed to raising awareness of this issue and advocating for policies that protect children from oppressive child labor. Child labor is not an issue of politics, it is an issue of humanity. All children have the right to a childhood; to education, health, safety, and self-determination—free from physical, mental, or social harm.
Will you join me in ensuring that all children have the right to a safe and healthy childhood?