The Kids Are at Work: Jean Kwok on Loosening Child Labor Laws and Her Years as a Child Worker in NYC
Jean Kwok in Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Novelist Jean Kwok joins co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss recent changes to child labor laws in the US, as more than ten states have proposed or enacted legislation that would loosen restrictions on minors working.
The three talk about what the shift means in relation to labor shortages and consider migrant children’s unique vulnerability to exploitation. Kwok describes working in a New York factory from kindergarten through high school and how that experience continues to affect her life. She also reads from her novel Girl in Translation, which is based on her years as a child worker.
Check out video excerpts from our interviews at Lit Hub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website. This episode of the podcast was produced by Anne Kniggendorf, and edited Han Mallek.
From the episode:
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Over the past year or so the GOP has been pushing to loosen child labor laws in places like Iowa, Minnesota, Arkansas, and Missouri. In Iowa—just to take one example—teens are now allowed to work six hours a day up from the earlier limit of four. And they’ve expanded the kinds of work children are allowed to do. If you’re 14 or 15 you can now work in a freezer or meat cooler, and 16 and 17-year-olds can do light assembly work involving explosives.
Politicians like Iowa state senator Adrian Dickey was quoted saying, “What we’re doing is providing them opportunities to have a job during the same time of day that is already allowed to their classmates to participate in extracurricular activities within their school.” So he’s likening this to, I don’t know, being on the tennis team.
Whitney Terrell: Seems like a Dickensian villain there.
VVG: Yeah. Proponents of this kind of legislation claim that they want to open up opportunities for young people to gain experience and income. They’re portraying it as super wholesome. But I would love to hear you talk a little bit about what having these looser or fewer child labor regulations has to do with what some people are calling a current labor shortage and what other people have termed a wage shortage. And what will happen to children if this broad push to loosen child labor laws and regulations is successful?
Jean Kwok: As somebody who really did work in a Chinatown clothing factory for most of my childhood, I can tell you that there’s actually quite a big difference between extracurricular activities and working for a wage in something like a factory.
Just to backtrack a bit, we have laws, and the laws are already not always followed. So the fact that a law exists is no guarantee that children will be protected by that law, but it will at least give you something—it will give you a framework within which you can work so that people can say, “Well, X, Y, and Z is happening, and it shouldn’t be happening.” Our legal system says that it shouldn’t be happening. It may well happen anyway, but at least there will be a legal recourse. If you take away that protection or make the protection much weaker, you have a very, very different situation in which children are absolutely at risk.
I’m an adult now, and I’m a fairly well integrated adult. And yet if we were to talk about extracurriculars and the difference between extracurriculars and working—I worked my entire life. There are all kinds of things I do not know how to do. I cannot swim because I did not take extracurricular activities. I did not learn to play the piano because there was no money for extracurriculars. I can’t drive, and I think a part of that is also based on not having grown up in a situation where I was in a car a lot, where I had adults who were able to drive, where I had access to a vehicle regularly in my house…
There are many, many things that I constantly realize I cannot do that most adults can do, because of my lack of extracurricular abilities and training when I was growing up. I spent all of that time working in a factory. So I would say that there is a huge difference between working for a wage and doing things that are supposed to enrich your life.
WT: I mean, one part of this issue, as you mentioned, is enforcement. The Guardian reported a 37 percent increase in violations of child labor laws in 2022, most of them pertaining to child migrant workers. I’m trying to figure out how the migrant angle of this plays in here…
I thought that, for instance, in a place like Arkansas—where you have a conservative governor who’s expanding this—I feel like the conservatives are doing this because they don’t want more migrant labor. They want to make it possible for more American children to work. But then there’s this other angle where migrants are also being exploited by these extended work obligations. So what is happening there?
JK: You know, it’s really hard to say. I think what I can speak to is that migrant children are particularly vulnerable, just as any working class child is in a family that is not affluent. What I mean by that is that when I was growing up, we were legal immigrants, but we were very poor. Because we were very poor, I went with my family to work in the clothing factory—not because they wanted the money from my extra work, although I’m sure that helped. But that was not the main reason. The main reason was that we lived in an unheated vermin-infested apartment in New York City and there was nobody who was old enough to look after a child who could be excused from work.
Everybody who was able to work basically had to work 24/7 in order to make ends meet, in order to pay our bills, in order to put food on the table. Nobody could be spared to watch a young kid at home. And so I was taken along not because my parents were trying to exploit me, it was just that they had no choice because of the economic situation they found themselves in. People who are poor and who are migrants are in a particularly difficult place with their backs up against the wall when they’re dealing with their children.
VVG: One of the things that’s going on here is that about a quarter million migrant children have come to the United States without their parents or adult guardians in the past few years. And those children seem uniquely vulnerable to this kind of exploitation, in part because they are supposed to be sponsored, and in some cases the sponsors are people who are taking advantage of them.
We’ll put this in our show notes for our listeners, but the New York Times reporter Hannah Dreier—whose beat this is—went to 20 states and interviewed about 100 children about the conditions they face. Some of the things in the stories are specifically about people, for example, saying that they will sponsor children but making an exchange for labor. She also describes 12-year old-workers in Florida, underage slaughterhouse workers in Delaware, Mississippi, and North Carolina, children sawing planks of wood at overnight shifts in South Dakota, and children dropping out of school. So this is obviously physically very dangerous work.
And then also—like what you’re describing—when someone comes into the United States unaccompanied, the state says they have to have a guardian, they have to be in a state-sanctioned environment. But between when the state says that and when the person actually goes to their sponsor, it seems like there’s extraordinarily little oversight of what it is that sponsors are doing with children.
JK: Right. I mean, that just sounds so dangerous and so awful for those kids. There’s so much room indeed for children to be used and exploited, especially by people who aren’t necessarily bonded to them. And you can’t, of course, paint everyone with one brush. I’m sure there are very caring people who are not out to do that. But the fact is that if you change the law, you open up this ability, right? You open up this possible vulnerability point where certain types of people can say, “That’s a way I could use someone else.”
Children are, of course, especially vulnerable to that. With migrants, of course, you can have a language issue. You’re separated from your family, you’re confused. You don’t know what’s right. You don’t know what’s wrong. I mean, with us, you know, even as legal immigrants, we were very confused by whether or not our situation was normal. You’d think, “Maybe everyone lives like this.” You are in a small environment, and even people who you should be able to trust can treat you in ways—when you are powerless—that are abominable.
The good thing is, there are also people who will come forth and treat you well and decently even though they have nothing to gain from you. But I’ve been in that position of not being in power and not having the knowledge of how things are supposed to be, and I’ve had people absolutely take advantage of that: to have you do labor for a low wage so that they can benefit and profit from you.
• Adrian Dickey • ‘Dumb and dangerous’: US sees surge in efforts to weaken child labor regulations, by Michael Sainato, The Guardian • “Iowa Governor Signs Law to Loosen Child Labor Regulations” by Katarina Sostaric, Iowa Public Radio • “Iowa Senate Republicans Pass Bill to Relax Some Child Labor Laws” by Katarina Sostaric, Iowa Public Radio • ‘It’s just crazy’: Republicans attack US child labor laws as violations rise” by Michael Sainato, The Guardian • “Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.” by Hannah Dreier, The New York Times. • “Republicans and Democrats have different top priorities for U.S. immigration policy” by J. Baxter Oliphant and Andy Cerda, Pew Research Center • “House G.O.P., Divided Over Immigration, Advances Border Crackdown Plan,” by Karoun Demirjian, The New York Times • “Jean Kwok, Author of Girl in Translation” by Jen Chung, The Gothamist • “Children as young as 12 work legally on farms, despite years of efforts to change law” by Andrea Hsu, NPR • ‘We give our blood so they live comfortably’: Sri Lanka’s tea pickers say they go hungry and live in squalor,” by Jeevan Ravindran, The Guardian • “Meet the urban sharecroppers,” by Tanis Taylor, The Guardian • China’s One-Child Policy – The New York Times