May 1, 2023
As organizations working to address human trafficking and labor exploitation, we are appalled by the horrific conditions children experienced after fleeing to the United States for refuge. This series in the New York Times demonstrates our government’s inability, unwillingness, or outright refusal to protect minors from forced labor.
This most recent story reveals that the federal government failed to act on multiple warnings and reports about migrant children being forced to work illegal shifts in auto factories, food packing plants, construction sites, and other poorly-regulated jobs. The Times reports that despite hundreds of calls reporting incidents of abuse, neglect, or trafficking, thousands of migrant children have been forced to work illegally within the U.S. The Biden Administration reportedly “treated these as discrete events, not as signs of a mounting problem.”
Other recent stories, including the Department of Labor’s own statements, reveal that this is a mounting problem, and one that needs urgent action.
Earlier this year, the Labor Department reported that it had seen a nearly 70 percent increase in child labor violations over the last five years, and that in the most recent fiscal year, more than 800 companies were found to have broken child labor laws.
Across the globe, businesses capitalize on migrant workers’ vulnerability, specifically targeting them for exploitation. Migrant workers already face language, cultural, and social barriers. They suffer from weak legal protections, limited resources, and minimal access to safety net services. For migrant children separated from their families, these factors are compounded by increased risks of food and shelter insecurity, decreased mobility, and a lack of a social support network. This often leaves children with no recourse if they end up in a situation of exploitation.
This practice is sadly commonplace around the world, and we know from our work that the United States is no exception. The Times series proves this once again.
The individuals and businesses that target these children and exploit their vulnerabilities should face serious financial and criminal penalties. Yet this is rarely the case. One of the largest companies caught by the Department of Labor, Packer Sanitation Services, Inc., makes more than $450 million in annual revenue, but it paid only a $1.5 million fine for the violations. The company faced no criminal charges for illegally hiring more than a hundred children to work in hazardous conditions, cleaning meatpacking plants at night.
Federal officials need to do more than report, they need to take swift and meaningful action.
The federal government has failed to provide adequate protections for these children. The children need sustained and meaningful case management services, which are critical to preventing this exploitation. The federal government should provide resources and support to these children. Without adequate support, these children are vulnerable to exploitation. Businesses have targeted these vulnerabilities, profiting from the labor of children as young as 12. We are also horrified to see that many states have passed bills recently to make this exploitation more, not less, likely.
The Department of Labor must increase its targeted child labor investigations, use the tools at its disposal to ensure that states do not weaken child labor laws, and take measures to protect children from dangerous or hazardous conditions. As an example, safety protections for children who work in agriculture have not been updated in four decades.
Employers, including factory owners, must be held accountable and face serious penalties for violating child labor laws. The Labor Department must continuously monitor those companies with multiple infractions and impose even harsher penalties if they commit additional violations. The Department must also penalize companies that benefit from child labor – even if the children are technically forced to work by intermediary or secondary firms.
The government must also act to provide adequate remedy and additional protections, including continuous case management services for the children involved. If children are temporarily held in custody, it must be brief and humane.
Finally, the Biden Administration must accompany this urgent action with meaningful efforts to increase oversight and inter-agency collaboration to protect the children.
At the heart of every single one of these stories is a business that would rather take advantage of children than pay the true cost of labor. This is unacceptable. The U.S. government must use its power and authority to end these abuses.
Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs
Child Labor Coalition (consisting of 39 organizational members)
Economic Policy Institute
Global March Against Child Labour
Human Trafficking Legal Center
Iowa Federation of Labor
Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation -US
Media Voices for Children
National Consumers league
Phoenix Zones Initiative
Prime International Social Enterprise