Where Is the Shame?
Disclosures this week of an explosive growth of migrant child labor – illegally using minors, who have been crossing the border, in factory jobs and hazardous assignments – should be dripping with shame in multiple directions.
Indeed, within days of an investigation by The New York Times, the Biden administration and the Labor Department announced they would pursue a crackdown on the practice in areas where they receive tips.
The move seems late and ineffective. Obviously, these minors are among those least likely to call the government with whistleblower information that can lose their jobs, among other things. And if employers were cooperating, minors wouldn’t have been hired in the first place.
Nevertheless, it is a response.
The investigation of what happens to the rising numbers of minors crossing the border – perhaps 250,000 in two years — also reflected that the Department of Health and Human Services have lost track of upwards of 85,000 minors. By law and arrangement, these minors are released into custody of a relative or family contact.
But The Times was able to find any number of cases in which minors using false papers were working up to 12 hours a day in sometimes dangerous jobs to make products that end up in products of major brands and retailers, including J. Crew, Walmart, Target, Ben & Jerry’s, Fruit of the Loom, Ford, and General Motors.
Many minors are struggling to even stay awake in school, struggling to send money back to Central American families, as well as pay off smuggling fees and living expenses.
Blame in Every Direction
Without looking very hard at the questions here, one could be disgusted by laxness in government agencies, at immigration policies gone wildly wrong, at U.S. employers who should know better, at companies that don’t look at their supplier arrangements in hiring minors, even at sponsoring families who either pressure teens to work in these jobs or see nothing wrong.
There is a load of wrongdoing here. Little of it has anything to do with politics, except for the politics of poverty.
On Fox News, the discussion about child labor was pointedly seen as a failure of the Biden administration solely. There was an insistence from anchors that the prime problem here is that these minors entered the country in the first place. If only they stayed home, there would be no such problem, they said.
One anchor insisted that the political Left has it upside-down in blaming Republicans for heartlessness in immigration, without mention of Trump administration policies that broke up families just as a deterrent to immigrate at all.
There was no mention of employers – knowingly or not – hiring underage workers, nor of working conditions seen as normal in cleaning slaughterhouses or on factory lines where OSHA has responded to injuries.
The Times report said 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.
Of course, there was no mention of what has driven so many in Central America to undertake the dangerous trek to the U.S. border or that the same pressures for child labor exist south of our border.
What is Being Done?
The Labor Department said it has launched an investigation in Grand Rapids, Mich., where The Times found minors working late nights at plants operated by Hearthside Food Solutions, which makes and packages food for companies including General Mills, Frito-Lay, and Quaker Oats.
A named 15-year-old was described by the news outlet trying to balance school and nightly eight-hour shifts to midnight packaging Cheerios. She said she was growing sick from the stress and intensity of the factory work and lack of sleep. Hearthside said that it had relied on a staffing company for workers and that it would implement better controls. Others said that finding themselves in such pressured situation was not what they had been expecting.
The Labor Department also is asking Congress to increase penalties for companies violating child labor laws because current maximum fines of $15,000 do not appear to deter the practice.
The Times also says that Labor is considering use of 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.
Coincidentally, we see the government acting more directly in offering financial help to semiconductor companies we want to encourage, making demands on how they source supplies and in offering childcare services to employees. It is discordant with seeing very mixed results involving companies actually putting children to work.
Under our immigration laws, minors from countries other than Canada and Mexico are allowed to stay in the United States and apply for asylum. The Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for ensuring sponsors will support them and protect them from trafficking or exploitation. But as numbers have increased, that HHS department has felt pressure to release minors from shelters as quickly as possible. Once released from shelters, many apparently find themselves on their own. There is a national hotline to report abuse and exploitation, but little follow-up.
It is unclear what sponsors think their responsibilities to include.
In Washington, meanwhile, congressional committees are aiming at eliminating federal workers to halt spending and there is widespread agreement that no comprehensive approach to immigration is going to see the light of day anytime soon.
IF YOU VALUE OUR NONPROFIT NEWS GATHERING AND DIVERSE OPINIONS, PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING TODAY