Superexploitation of migrant children
‘The coining of children’s blood into capital’

The horror portrayed in a recent New York Times exposé of migrant child labor shows how relevant what Karl Marx wrote 156 years ago is now.

Marx’s monumental work, “Capital,” was a tremendous theoretical contribution, describing in meticulous detail how the capitalist system of exploitation operates. One class of toilers, the working class, produces “surplus value” — profit — for an elite class of idlers, the capitalist class. 

Marx’s “Capital” does more than break down, in a scientific manner, the workings of capitalism; his work is a powerful and passionate indictment of the class that enriches itself. “The Working Day,” Chapter 10 of Volume I — published in 1867 — exposes the workplace horrors of 19th century England, as documented by the government’s own factory inspectors. 

Children eight years old, and sometimes even younger, worked long hours in dangerous conditions in workplaces such as potteries, bakeries, silk mills and steel and iron works. Reports described nine- and 10-year-old children working shifts of 12 or more hours, often at night, in steel rolling mills. 

“In its unseeing, unrestrainable passion, its werewolf hunger for surplus labor, capital usurps not only the moral, but even the mere physical, maximum bounds of the working day. It usurps the time needed for growth, development and healthy maintenance of the body,” Marx wrote. He decried “the coining of children’s blood into capital.”

In the 21st century, 19th century conditions

Sadly, things are not so different in 2023. This was made vividly clear in a Feb. 25 New York Times article, “Alone and exploited, migrant children work brutal jobs across the U.S.” 

The title alone speaks volumes. Of the hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied minors who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border seeking a better life, many have “ended up working in dangerous jobs that violate child labor laws — including factories that make products for well-known brands like Cheetos and Fruit of the Loom.” 

Others — teenagers and even younger children — package cereals and granola bars, operate milking machines, clean hotel rooms, work in roofing and make auto parts for Ford and General Motors.

Many work at night and try to attend school during the day, but they fall asleep in class or end up dropping out. These exploited children suffer frequent, sometimes fatal, injuries. They are working to help their families in their home countries and pay off large debts to “sponsors,” who helped them come into the U.S.

“In many parts of the country, middle and high school teachers in English-language learner programs say it is now common for nearly all their students to rush off to long shifts after their classes end,” according to the Times report.

Huge Fortune 500 corporations display the same “werewolf hunger” for profits that Marx observed in 19th century Europe. This continues to drive the exploitation of workers, including children, not only inside the U.S. but around the world.

No child should have to suffer such a high level of abuse and be “alone and exploited.” 

Organized labor has a responsibility to confront this brutal example of racism and xenophobia head on. Unions that represent workers at companies that illegally profit from child labor need to make this a collective bargaining issue — such as at the auto companies, whose contracts with the United Auto Workers expire this year. Teachers’ unions need to speak up for the migrant children their members teach.

Class struggle in the 1930s won the Fair Labor Standards Act that, among other things, limited child labor. It will take a global, classwide movement to stop “the coining of children’s blood into capital.” 

Another world is possible — and necessary.

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