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Global child labor is on the rise for the first time in 20 years. Unfortunately, the United States is no exception. The Department of Labor has reported a 44% increase in children employed illegally between October 2022 and July 2023. A February 2023 New York Times investigation highlighted the harrowing situations and dangerous jobs that children face in supply chains across the United States. Some well-known companies are implicated – where children below the legal minimum age are employed, are allowed to work long hours, or work in hazardous conditions. These conditions violate child labor laws and the rights of children – both under domestic and international law.
Government responses to this report included calls for law reform, for increased penalties and for stricter enforcement on employers, as well as plans to introduce new tactics, and partnerships with various agencies and foreign governments, for the enforcement of child labor laws. There are, however, also at least two dozen state-level legislative initiatives, some of which have been successfully enacted, to water-down or limit legal protections for child workers.
While efforts to strengthen child labor protections and enforce existing standards are encouraging, the adequacy of such measures remains to be seen. In addition to adopting and implementing a strong legal framework based on international labor standards, the effort to eliminate child labor requires, among other things, universal access to education and to social protection, addressing poverty, and the promotion of decent work for adult workers. The panel will reflect on the human rights implications of these developments in the United States and beyond.
Terri Gerstein directs the State and Local Enforcement Project at the Harvard Center for Labor and a Just Economy; she is also a Senior Fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and a former Open Society Foundations Leadership in Government Fellow. Previously, she worked for over 17 years enforcing labor laws, including as the Labor Bureau Chief in the New York State AG’s Office, and as a Deputy Commissioner in the New York State Department of Labor.
Benjamin Smith is the Senior Child Labour Specialist of the International Labour Organization (ILO) where he supports member states in the development and implementation of policies and programs to tackle child labor. He previously served as a Presidential Management Fellow with the U.S. Department of Labor’s International Bureau of Labor Affairs.
Benyam Dawit Mezmur is Professor of Law at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa and a member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. He served as the special rapporteur on children and armed conflict of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and was a former Eleanor Roosevelt Fellow, Human Rights Program, at the Harvard Law School.
Gerald L. Neuman (moderator) is the Director of the Human Rights Program, and the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law at Harvard Law School. He teaches courses in international human rights law, immigration and nationality law, and U.S. constitutional law. From 2011 to 2014, Neuman served as a Member of the UN Human Rights Committee.
The event is organized by the Harvard Law School Human Rights Program. It is co-sponsored by the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, the Center for Labor and a Just Economy and the HLS Youth Advocacy & Policy Lab.