The Biden administration on Monday announced a wide crackdown on the labor exploitation of migrant children around the United States, including more aggressive investigations of companies benefiting from their work.
The development came days after The New York Times published an investigation into the explosive growth of migrant child labor throughout the United States. Children, who have been crossing the southern border without their parents in record numbers, are ending up in punishing jobs that violate child labor laws, The Times found.
As part of the new effort, the Department of Labor, which enforces child labor laws, will target investigations in geographical areas where it rarely receives tips, according to senior administration officials. Migrant children are among the least likely workers to reach out to labor inspectors for help with workplace issues.
The department also will explore using a “hot goods” provision of law that allows it to stop the interstate transport of goods where child labor has been found in the supply chain, according to senior administration officials. The Times found products made with child labor 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.
In just the past two years, more than 250,000 children have come into the country alone. Many of them are under tremendous pressure to send money back to their parents, as well as 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.
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Children now are working hazardous jobs in every state and across industries, The Times found. They are taking jobs in slaughterhouses, construction sites and factories — positions that have long been off-limits to American children.
At least a dozen underage migrant workers have been killed on the job since 2017, including a 16-year-old who fell from an earthmover he was driving in Georgia. Others have been seriously injured, losing legs and shattering their backs in falls.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., The Times found children working late nights at plants operated by Hearthside Food Solutions, which makes and packages food for other companies, including General Mills, Frito-Lay and Quaker Oats.
The Department of Labor has begun an investigation into Hearthside, administration officials said. Department officials also plan to ask Congress to increase penalties for violators. Federal investigators have long complained that the maximum fine for child labor violations — $15,000 per occurrence — is not enough to deter them.
One Hearthside worker, Carolina Yoc, 15, described a grueling schedule of juggling school and eight-hour swing shifts each day, working to nearly midnight packaging Cheerios. She said she was growing sick from the stress and intensity of the factory work and lack of sleep.
A representative for Hearthside said that it had relied on a staffing company for workers and that it would implement better controls.
Representative Hillary Scholten, Democrat of Michigan, said in a speech on the congressional floor Monday, “Stories of kids dropping out of school, collapsing from exhaustion, and even losing limbs to machinery are what one expects to find in a Charles Dickens or Upton Sinclair novel, but not an account of everyday life in 2023, not in the United States of America.”
Under a 2008 federal anti-trafficking law, children traveling alone from countries other than Canada and Mexico are allowed to stay in the United States and apply for asylum or other legal protections. The Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for ensuring sponsors will support them and protect them from trafficking or exploitation.
But as more and more minors have crossed the border, the Biden administration has ramped up demand on H.H.S. staff members to release them from shelters as quickly as possible. Xavier Becerra, the secretary of health and human services, has urged staff members to move with the speed of an assembly line, The Times found. A spokeswoman for the department said last week that it was in the best interest of children to be moved out of detention and that the department had not compromised safety.
Once children are released, they have few places to turn for help. Most leave shelters with little but the phone number for a national hotline. The Times found that children were calling the hotline to report abuse and exploitation, and hearing nothing back.
On Monday, senior administration officials said Health and Human Services would now direct operators to return calls to children, and also require them to explain what local law enforcement agency would be in touch.
Department staff members will also give more information to sponsors and underage migrants about child labor protections.
Migrant children often buy false identification, including Social Security numbers, and find work through brokers or staffing agencies, who place them in factories or other companies. The Times found their labor ended up in the supply chain for some of the best-known American brands.
Most of the companies said they were investigating the situation, or had ended contracts with suppliers identified by The Times. PepsiCo, which owns Frito-Lay and Quaker Oats, whose brands are sometimes manufactured at Hearthside, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
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