Joe Biden Wants To Kick 13-Year-Old Slaughterhouse Cleaners Out Of Their Jobs
Girls at Weaving Machines, Evansville, Indiana 1908. National Archives photo by Lewis Hine.

As the US staggers through its Second Gilded Age, the legacy of decades of Republicans promising we'd all be better off if we just cut regulations on business while also gutting government agencies that only get in the way of prosperity, we're once more seeing problems that a lot of people thought had been left behind a century ago, like the horrors of child labor. Funny thing about capitalism: When you take away regulations that are supposed to keep people safe, the same old abuses come roaring right back.

Perhaps the one consolation is that we also have muckraking journalists who expose the abuses. As the New York Timesreported over the weekend (free gift link), the USA is seeing a wave of exploitation of migrant children who shouldn't be working in dangerous full-time jobs, but who are, thanks to failures in government systems meant to protect migrant children, chronic under-staffing of the agencies that are supposed to protect worker rights, and of course the tight post-pandemic labor market, in which there are too many job openings and too few adult workers willing to work for the low wages employers are offering. These kids aren't hiding out from immigration authorities, either: Most have been processed through the immigration system after surrendering at the border, and are in the US legally while their immigration cases move forward.

Also fortunate: There's a pro-labor Democrat in the White House, and outrage over the Times story has prompted the Biden administration to take action (another gift linky) to crack down on the abuses the investigation exposed:

The White House laid out a host of new initiatives to investigate child labor violations among employers and improve the basic support that migrant children receive when they are released to sponsors in the United States. Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, called the revelations in The Times “heartbreaking” and “completely unacceptable.”

As part of the new effort, the Department of Labor, which enforces these laws, said it would target not just the factories and suppliers that illegally employ children, but also the larger companies that have child labor in their supply chains. Migrant children often use false identification and find jobs through staffing agencies that do not verify their Social Security numbers.

Companies have escaped fines in the past by blaming those agencies or other subcontractors when violations are discovered.

The Labor Department announced Monday that it would lead an interagency task force to fight child labor, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services. The agencies pledged to make several reforms to keep migrant kids safe and out of dangerous jobs; several of the steps announced in the statement will address shortcomings identified by the Times.

About time.

For instance, the Times pointed out that HHS has fallen down badly in its responsibility to make sure that unaccompanied minors who cross the US-Mexico border are placed with sponsors who will care for them and make sure they go to school. As the number of unaccompanied minors has surged in recent years, HHS has fallen far short in vetting sponsors, leading to many children being placed not with family members but with labor traffickers, winding up in virtual indentured servitude. Even kids placed with relatives sometimes have to take jobs where they work long hours at dangerous jobs that are supposed to be off limits to minors.

Kids are often placed without any case management or follow-up, which the agency says it will address by working with Congress to get sufficient funding so that all minors get "post release services" by 2025 — currently, the Times reported, only a third of underaged minors get full case management.

The rest are often released to sponsors with only a card bearing the toll-free number for an HHS hotline to report any abuses, but several teens told the Times that nothing happened after they called to report they were being overworked and not paid. An HHS spokesperson explained that the most the agency can do is to pass along reports to local law enforcement, since HHS has no law enforcement powers.

HHS will make changes to hotline procedures immediately, requiring that hotline operators follow up with children who call, to let them know what law enforcement agency their complaint was forwarded to — although it might be nice if there were more follow-up with the local agencies, too. HHS will also begin providing more information on labor protections to kids and to sponsors, which is a start, at least.

The Labor Department will ramp up investigations of alleged abuses, including situations reported by the Times at a food-processing company, Hearthside Food Solutions, which has 39 factories in the US and makes and packs foods for major companies like General Mills and Frito-Lay, among others.

The joint statement also called on Congress to provide more funding for its investigations and enforcement functions, noting that a funding freeze from 2010 to 2019 ( the result of austerity demands from Republicans during the 2010 debt ceiling crisis) has led to loss of staff and critical shortages of resources needed to protect workers. Emergency funding from the COVID relief packages has helped to offset the lost capacity, but Congress hasn't funded the agency at levels the Biden administration requested.

The Labor Department also asked Congress to steeply increase penalties for companies that use child labor, noting that

The maximum civil money penalty under current law for a child labor violation is $15,138 per child. That’s not high enough to be a deterrent for major profitable companies. The Department of Labor is calling on Congress to increase civil monetary penalties, strengthening protections from retaliation for people who report child labor law violations and investigating corporations flouting child labor laws.

Well hell yes, let's do that.

Members of Congress are demanding action too, including some Republicans, who we hope will actually work to improve conditions for underaged workers, not just yell at the administration while doing nothing:

Republicans on Capitol Hill immediately began launching investigations and discussing legislation, including plans to demand the Department of Health and Human Services to track and provide better care for children after they are released to sponsors. Democrats are also considering new measures.

Both the House Judiciary and Oversight committees pledged investigations, and Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio and the Judiciary chairman, demanded in a letter sent Monday that Robin Dunn Marcos, the director of the division of H.H.S. in charge of child migrants, submit to a transcribed interview.

Great. And how about adequate funding for HHS to do the vetting and follow-up, as well as for the Labor Department to investigate child labor abuses, please?

And dare we even go there: How about some real reform of the immigration system, so that 12-year-olds aren't being sent north to clean slaughterhouses so they can send money to their families in Guatemala? If there aren't enough American adults to take those jobs, what if... we allowed in more people who want to work to come here and work?

Yeah, I know. Sometimes I think crazy stuff.

[NYT / US Department of Labor / Photo: National Archives]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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