Rise in child labour reports in U.S.

Young person operating heavy equipment

From the Summer 2023 HEU Guardian

Child labour in the United States is far from a thing of the past, and experts says they’re not surprised to hear the U.S. Department of Health and the Department of Labor have seen a 69 per cent increase in companies illegally employing children under the age of 18 to do high-risk jobs and work long hours.

“It’s very concerning that kids are working in factory settings,” says Reid Maki, director of Child Labor Advocacy for the National Consumers’ League and the coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition. 

Maki attributes the jarring statistic to a genuine increase in instances of unlawful child labour, combined with better enforcement of child labour laws under U.S. President Joe Biden.

The rise of child labour comes as the country is witnessing an influx of children from Latin America who, fleeing violence and poverty, are crossing into the United States without a parent, according to both Maki and government reports. 

“Those kids are under a lot of pressure to send money home,” said Maki. “So, they’re desperate for work. And these seem to be the kids that are ending up in these illegal jobs in the factories, in the meatpacking plants.”

One of the most disturbing investigations from the federal agencies found that more than 100 kids were working in 13 meatpacking facilities in eight states.

“The children were working the night shift and they were cleaning machinery on the processing floor, and they were using pressure hoses which are quite dangerous, and they were using caustic cleaning agents,” he said.

Along with the damning federal reports in 2023, the New York Times released an extensive investigation into child labour in March, forcing the issue to the forefront. 

In response, federal agencies say they’re stepping up investigations and enforcement, expanding support for newly arrived migrant children, and strengthening the vetting process of adults who sponsor migrant kids.

“We see every day the scourge of child labour in this country, and we have a legal and a moral obligation to take every step in our power to prevent it,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh in a statement.

“Too often, companies look the other way and claim that their staffing agency, or their subcontractor or supplier is responsible… This is not a 19th century problem; this is a today problem,” said Walsh.

The health and labour departments also called on Congress to increase fines to companies illegally employing kids. The current maximum penalty per infraction is just over $15,000 U.S. – “not high enough to be a deterrent for major profitable companies.”

“We’ve never not had a child labour problem,” explains Michael Hencock, a lawyer who spent 20 years working at the Department of Labor in the division responsible for child labour.

“I don’t know if there’s some sort of myth out there that we solved child labour and now it’s coming back,” said Hencock. “We never solved the child labour problem.”