A young child working night shifts in hazardous conditions to feed their family is a type of story some expect to hear from so-called underdeveloped, poverty-stricken countries. But in the United States, child labor is on a steady increase as more cases are being exposed and investigated. Hundreds of American companies are illegally employing children, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In many of these cases, the minors are unaccompanied migrants who have crossed the southern border of the U.S.
The Chicago Workers Collaborative, which is a workers’ rights group, found workers as young as 13 years old working through third-party staffing agencies at a factory for Hearthside Food Solutions factory in Bolingbrook, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. Hearthside Food Solutions is an Illinois-based contract manufacturer and private bakery that makes and packages products for several name-brand cereal and snack brands. In early March protesters gathered outside a warehouse of Hearthside Food Solutions to call attention to the problem.
The Final Call contacted Hearthside Food Solutions about the allegations. The company responded via email stating that the claims made do not match their values or how they do business. “We hold ourselves and our partners to high ethical standards, and will not tolerate behavior that is unlawful, unethical, or diminishes the reputation Hearthside has worked tirelessly to build.
The trust our workforce places in us to be an employer of choice is paramount, and the same goes for the trust placed in us by our customers. As we always have, we will continually improve and earn that trust every day,” the statement read in part.
Hearthside also stated they are reviewing their agency partners “to determine whether we should be implementing any changes.”
Nationally, child labor has increased by nearly 70 percent between 2018 and 2022, reports the U.S. Department of Labor. In the last year, 835 companies were found to have violated child labor laws. The department reported on February 13, in a news release that Packers Sanitation, Inc., paid $1.5 million in civil money penalties for employing 102 minors between 13 and 17 years old and having them work in hazardous conditions and overnight shifts in eight states including Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee and Texas.
Scott Allen of the Wage and Hour Division in the U.S. Department of Labor told The Final Call via email: “The Department of Labor’s responsibility is to enforce the laws as they are written. Combatting the exploitation of young workers and holding to account employers who put the physical and mental well-being of young workers in peril or compromise their educational opportunities is a key priority for the Wage and Hour Division. Responsibility for any changes or reforms to the existing law fall to Congress.”
Mr. Allen said the department’s Wage and Hour Division and the Health and Human Services Department’s Administration for Children and Families signed a Memorandum of Agreement on March 23 to “encourage greater coordination between them through information sharing, training, and education to further the goal of preventing and responding to instances of child labor exploitation and child labor trafficking.”
“The Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) seeks to maximize the division’s enforcement of the child labor protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act, to enhance the ability to protect children from exploitation and to connect individuals to needed benefits and services. The MOA includes unprecedented steps for greater collaboration between the two agencies to prevent and address illegal child labor,” said Mr. Allen.
Illinois State Representative Dagmara Avelar argued that more protection is needed for minors. “One of the great achievements of the labor movement has historically been the elimination of dangerous child labor that takes kids out of school and puts them at risk of irreparable harm.
The harm this rollback on child labor protections does to our community is incalculable. What does it say about our society when we look the other way as children are exploited in our own communities? What does it tell our children when we allow for some kids to fade into the shadows without providing them the love and support they deserve?” she told The Final Call.
She said the surge in child labor cases was made possible by the global pandemic and few protections for migrant families.
“These children have legal status as asylum seekers, but are not protected by child labor laws,” she said. “That means they often seek employment through staffing agencies that are willing to look the other way as kids as young as 13 take dangerous jobs meant only for trained adults.
Not coincidentally, the staffing industry has grown dramatically over the past few years, due to the global economic disruption and the protection they offer client companies from regulators and advocates trying to enforce existing labor laws,” she said.
On the state level, Rep. Avelar believes legislators also have a responsibility to stop child labor. “We have to start by recognizing that the status quo is unacceptable,” she said. “From there, we have to recognize that this is a delicate issue that, if handled improperly, could end up hurting these kids more than helping them. The state legislature needs to invest resources in exploring the policy solutions available to ensure that existing child labor protections apply to all children, regardless of immigration status, she said.
“We must also ensure that the aim and effect of any enforcement is to support children and their families, not further criminalize them. Whatever the ultimate policy solutions, reporting and enforcement will be key, especially with regard to the industries most likely to inappropriately employ child laborers, such as the staffing industry,” added Rep. Avelar.
According to a 2022 study by the Center for Migration Studies of New York, more than half of migrants in the United States are Latino.
“Child labor has had a very destructive effect on both Black and Brown communities and this is not a new phenomenon but has its roots since the colonizers first interacted with the people of Africa and the people of the Western hemisphere,” Student Minister Abel Muhammad, representative to Spanish-speaking people for the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, told The Final Call.
“They were not shy about exploiting and mistreating our people—men, women and children—so the modern expression of it is not anything new to our communities, unfortunately,” he said.
“They also deprive our children of the ability to be educated and advance themselves and their people. This may be the most damning aspect of child labor. It robs the young mind of the ability to develop, grow, expand into what the Creator wishes for them and instead, limits them to really machine-like labor in extremely difficult circumstances too often,” added Student Min. Muhammad. He said legislators and the community have a responsibility in extinguishing the problem.
Advocates argue one of the roadblocks to protection is that large corporations outsource to contractors and staffing agencies and often avoid accountability. “If workers say that their labor rights are being violated, the corporation can point the finger at the staffing agency and plead ignorance–distancing itself from their exploitation, even as it profits from their work.
In outsourcing work, all too often corporations also outsource responsibility,” noted a March 16 commentary published on fortune.com titled, “Corporations have a duty to prevent child labor abuses in their supply chains. Here’s how they’re still getting off the hook.” On Feb. 23 The New York Times published an exposé on illegal child labor in the U.S.
“Often, several layers of subcontracting separate the brand-name corporations from the workers who make their products. According to The Times report, General Mills, which owns Cheerios, contracts out to Hearthside Food Solutions, a corporation that makes and packages General Mills’ products. Hearthside in turn relies on temporary staffing agencies to hire and pay workers at its processing plants,” noted the fortune.com article.
“In a statement, Hearthside said that it was committed to complying with laws governing worker protections and disputed the allegations about safety. However, the role of temporary staffing agencies in this child labor nightmare is well documented: They shield corporations from liability for labor violations in their supply chains.”
Workers need enforcement agencies on the state and federal level to prioritize child labor investigations and make clear that they will aggressively pursue joint employer liability against any corporation that outsource to subcontractors that use child labor, the article continued.
Unfortunately, on the state level, several states across the country are attempting to weaken child labor protections, just as violations of these standards are rising, noted the Economic Policy Institute in a report released March 16 titled, “Child labor laws are under attack in states across the country.”
Federal agencies are ramping up enforcement of child labor protections in response to increasing violations but industry groups are working to roll back child labor protections via state legislation, noted the EPI report. “Already in 2023, eight bills to weaken child labor protections have been introduced in six Midwestern states (Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and South Dakota) and in Arkansas, where a bill repealing restrictions on work for 14 and 15 year olds has now been signed into law,” reported the Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
The EPI report provided policy recommendations for lawmakers at both the federal and state levels. “At the federal level, Congress should heed calls to increase penalties for child labor violations and address chronic underfunding of agencies that enforce labor standards, eliminate occupational carveouts that allow for weaker standards in agricultural employment, pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, and implement immigration reforms that curb the exploitation of unauthorized immigrants and unaccompanied migrant youth,” the report stated.
“At the state level, lawmakers should eliminate subminimum wages for youth and raise the minimum wage, eliminate the two-tiered system that fails to protect children from hazardous or excessive work in agriculture, strengthen labor standards enforcement, and empower young people to build and strengthen unions,” the EPI report continued.
“We should urge legislators to do everything that they can to protect our children and our families but whether legislators or politicians do anything, we must follow the guidance of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and make our own communities a safe and decent place to live,” explained Student Min. Abel Muhammad.
“That starts with making our communities safe for our children, secure for our children and making sure that our children are protected and not forced into these types of situations which limit their progress and their ability to fulfill their purpose in life,” he said. Final Call staff contributed to this report.