Biden administration plans crackdown on migrant child labor

The Biden administration on Monday announced a comprehensive crackdown on the labor exploitation of migrant children in the United States, including more aggressive investigations into companies that profit from their labor.

The announcement came days after the New York Times published an investigation that revealed the rise in migrant child labor in the United States. Children who cross the southern border without their parents in record numbers end up in punitive jobs that violate child labor laws, The Times found.

As part of the effort, the Department of Labor, which enforces child labor laws, will conduct investigations in geographic areas where reports of violations are rarely received. Migrant children are among the least likely to turn to labor inspectors for help with workplace problems.

The department will also consider using a “hot goods” statute that would allow it to halt the interstate movement of goods if child labor has been detected in the supply chain, according to senior administration officials. In addition, she will urge Congress to increase penalties for violations. Federal investigators have long complained that the maximum fine for child labor violations — $15,000 per incident — is insufficient to deter child labor.

In the past two years alone, more than 250,000 children have come to the country. Many of them are under tremendous pressure to send money back to their parents, as well as to pay thousands of dollars in smuggling fees and, in some cases, rent and living expenses to their sponsors. Most are from Central America, where economic conditions have deteriorated since the pandemic.

Children today work in dangerous jobs in every state and industry, manufacturing products in the American supply chains of major brands and retailers including J. Crew, Walmart, Target, Ben & Jerry’s, Fruit of the Loom, Ford and General Motors, The Times found . They find jobs in slaughterhouses, on construction sites, and in factories—positions long off-limits to American children.

At least a dozen child migrant workers have been killed on the job since 2017, including a 16-year-old who fell from an earthmoving machine he was driving in Georgia. Others were seriously injured, losing legs and breaking their backs when they fell.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, The Times found children working late hours at plants operated by Hearthside Food Solutions, which manufactures and packages food for other companies, including General Mills, Frito-Lay and Quaker Oats.

The Department of Labor has launched an investigation into Hearthside, administration officials said.

One Hearthside worker, Carolina Yoc, 15, described a grueling schedule of daily schoolwork and eight-hour swing shifts working until nearly midnight to box Cheerios. She said she gets sick from the stress and intensity of factory work and the lack of sleep.

Rep. Hillary Scholten, a Michigan Democrat, said Monday in a speech in Congress: “Tales of children dropping out of school, collapsing from exhaustion and even losing limbs to machines are what you see in a Charles Dickens or Upton Sinclair expects novel, but no account of everyday life in 2023, not in the United States of America.”

A Hearthside representative said they had relied on a labor recruitment firm and would implement better controls.

Under a 2008 federal anti-trafficking law, unaccompanied children from countries other than Canada and Mexico are allowed to remain in the United States and seek asylum or other legal protection. The Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for ensuring sponsors support them and protecting them from human trafficking or exploitation.

However, as more and more minors have crossed the line, the Biden administration has increased the requirement for HHS employees to release them from shelters as soon as possible. Xavier Becerra, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, has urged staff to move at the speed of an assembly line, The Times noted. A spokeswoman for the department said last week that it was in the children’s best interests to be released from custody and that the department had not compromised safety.

On Monday, senior administration officials said Health and Human Services would change its policies for a national hotline, which is the only safety net the majority of children have once they are given to sponsors. The Times noted that children called the hotline to report abuse and exploitation and got nothing back. The agency will now direct operators to recall children and also require them to explain which local law enforcement agency will be contacted.

Department staff will also provide sponsors and children with further information on child labor protections.

Migrant children often buy fake IDs, including social security numbers, and find work through brokers or recruitment agencies who place them in factories or other businesses. The Times noted that her work has benefited a variety of global companies as part of the supply chain for some of America’s best-known brands.

Most companies said they were investigating the situation or had terminated contracts with suppliers identified by The Times. PepsiCo, which owns Frito-Lay and Quaker Oats, brands of which are sometimes made at Hearthside, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Biden administration plans crackdown on migrant child labor

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