Democrats call for increased enforcement of child labor laws

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Washington — U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, led a group of 61 Democratic members of Congress in calling Monday for the Biden administration to take more aggressive action against child labor in the United States.

The letter comes around two weeks after the New York Times published an investigation showing widespread employment of child migrant workers in factory jobs around the country, including in Michigan.

The lawmakers said they "appreciate" the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services' initial actions, including creating a task force to investigate child labor violations and abuses of migrant children.

But they added they "are frustrated by the lack of timely action." The group asked the Labor Department to prevent the shipment of goods made using child labor to prevent companies from profiting from products made by children, and demanded more proactive enforcement of existing labor laws, including pursuing fines and criminal action against companies found to employ children.

The group also urged HHS to quickly follow up with migrant children who report mistreatment and expand legal and social services for children who are released from their custody.

"Our children are our future, and we must be doing everything we can to protect them," the lawmakers wrote. Migrant children working for auto, food processing and textile companies "is unacceptable and must end immediately. Children should be in school, not working in dangerous factory jobs."

The legislators added that they are committed to passing legislation to increase penalties for violating child labor laws, which DOL called for in the wake of the investigation. The existing fine of $15,138 is "not high enough to be a deterrent for major profitable companies," the agency said.

Michigan U.S. Reps. Hillary Scholten, D-Grand Rapids; Debbie Dingell, D-Ann Arbor; Elissa Slotkin, D-Lansing, and Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, also signed the letter.

The Times found that automotive suppliers and a food contractor in the Grand Rapids area are illegally employing migrant children in jobs that can include dangerous conditions and long hours, producing goods used by Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., and General Mills Inc.

The west Michigan cases were part of a national pattern of children who migrate to the United States and find themselves working exhausting jobs, often trapped in debt for smuggling fees and living expenses to people serving as their sponsors.

The system is enabled by "a chain of willful ignorance," the Times reported, including companies that fail to properly screen employees, schools that don't report labor violations, and little follow-up from federal agencies responsible for ensuring their safety.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, also signed a letter led by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, earlier this month similarly calling for further Biden administration action to prevent migrant children being illegally employed.

The reporting prompted state and federal investigations into Hearthside Food Solutions, a food processing company with locations in Grand Rapids that produce Chewy and Nature Valley Granola bars and package Lucky Charms and Cheetos, and which was found to employ migrant children.

The Labor Department called upon Congress to increase funding for the agency's enforcement activities, which it said has lost 12% of its staff between 2010 and 2019 due to underfunding.

There has been a 69% increase in children illegally working at U.S. companies since 2018, the Labor Department said. The agency said it has 600 child labor investigations underway and that it found 835 companies in the last fiscal year that violated labor laws, employing more than 3,800 kids.

The New York Times report followed an earlier report from Reuters showing the use of child labor at plants in Alabama connected to South Korean automaker Hyundai Motor Co. The Hyundai assembly plant in Montgomery makes products including the Hyundai Elantra and Santa Fe.

Twitter: @rbeggin