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NY Times Exposé: Migrant Child Laborers Taking US Children's Dangerous Jobs
What? You say children shouldn't work dangerous jobs?
Remember how we all laughed at Newt Gingrich and mocked him back in 2011 when he suggested maybe schools could save money by hiring children to do the janitorial work and haha, did that idiot think it was 1890 or something? But of course, since the Reagan years, Republicans and business have been doing everything in their power to recreate the Gilded Age, only with smartphones. And yes indeedy, that includes child labor. Just look at that 1909 photo up top: replace the wooden shelves and cigar boxes with stainless steel, conveyor belts, and boxes of Cheerios, and make the girls Guatemalan 15-year-olds who are working the night shift at a factory in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and here we are again.
Chances are extremely good that most of us are buying stuff made using child labor, right here in the USA, as the New York Times reports in a blockbuster investigation (NYT gift link) that calls to mind the muckraking journalism that helped end child labor back in the first Gilded Age. Times investigative reporter Hannah Dreier and her team talked to more than a hundred child laborers in 20 states and reviewed records that make it clear that this isn't just a matter of a few bad apples hiring migrant kids. The economy is shot through with underaged workers, and virtually all the safeguards that were supposed to keep that from happening have fallen apart.
Hooray for capitalism. Hooray for dismantling the administrative state. And now Republicans in several states want to make it easier for American kids to work dangerous jobs too, as long as they call it part of a "training program."
Dreier explains that the exploitation of migrant kids has been driven by several factors that have crashed together: The children are fleeing Central America, and they're
driven by economic desperation that was worsened by the pandemic. This labor force has been slowly growing for almost a decade, but it has exploded since 2021, while the systems meant to protect children have broken down.
A big part of the tragedy is that most of the kids who are being exploited are here in the US after having gone through the immigration system that's supposed to prevent them from being abused. In the past couple years, immigration authorities have been turning back almost everyone crossing the border and turning themselves in, apart from some families with children and especially children migrating alone, as Dreier explains:
Children have crossed the Southern border on their own for decades, and since 2008, the United States has allowed non-Mexican minors to live with sponsors while they go through immigration proceedings, which can take several years. The policy, codified in anti-trafficking legislation, is intended to prevent harm to children who would otherwise be turned away and left alone in a Mexican border town.
In the early 2010s, most minors crossing the border alone were sponsored by their parents, who had already come to the US. But during the big wave of migration from Central America in 2013 to 2014, that began to change, and increasing numbers of unaccompanied minors were sponsored by more distant relatives, or worse, by sponsors who were no relation at all, but had sought to bring in minors to work.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which is supposed to ensure safe placements for migrant kids, couldn't keep up, and in recent years has been pressured to move kids out of government shelters so there aren't any horror stories about kids being warehoused in tent cities as they were during the Trump administration.
Now the horror stories are far less visible, because HHS began moving children out of federal care, and the process of vetting sponsors broke down. That's partly just a matter of lack of resources: Congress threw tons of money at immigration enforcement, but not at the systems needed to protect minors who by law must be allowed in (and indeed, Republicans would very much like to just turn back minors, too, so they can be exploited in Mexico where nobody has to think about it).
But HHS has made matters worse with a single-minded emphasis on getting kids out of federal care, regardless of where they end up. HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra told Congress in a 2021 hearing, "We don’t want to continue to see a child languish in our care if there is a responsible sponsor," but in practice, that's turned out to mean any sponsor, don't bother looking too closely. Becerra reportedly demanded higher rates of releasing kids, regardless of staffers' concerns that it was resulting in labor trafficking.
His agency began paring back protections that had been in place for years, including some background checks and reviews of children’s files, according to memos reviewed by The Times and interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees [...]
Staff members said in interviews that Mr. Becerra continued to push for faster results, often asking why they could not discharge children with machine-like efficiency.
“If Henry Ford had seen this in his plants, he would have never become famous and rich. This is not the way you do an assembly line,” Mr. Becerra said at a staff meeting last summer, according to a recording obtained by The Times.
Mr. Secretary, children aren't a goddamn assembly line. The story notes that HHS is supposed to keep track of children that have been sent to sponsors, but that the reality is far different:
Unlike the foster care system, in which all children get case management, H.H.S. provides this service to about a third of children who pass through its care, and usually for just four months. Tens of thousands of other children are sent to their sponsors with little but the phone number for a national hotline. From there, they are often on their own: There is no formal follow-up from any federal or local agencies to ensure that sponsors are not putting children to work illegally.
HHS does try calling sponsors a month after kids have been released, but records the Times reviewed show that the agency loses track of roughly a third of them right away.
The hotline number given to children to report exploitation isn't much help; an HHS spokesperson explained that HHS has no law enforcement authority and can't remove children from homes, so the most it can do is pass along complaints to local law enforcement, which may or may not investigate. Sometimes a sponsor will be prosecuted, but not often. There's no systematic follow-up, and so kids may end up in virtual slavery:
Juanito Ferrer called for help after he was brought to Manassas, Va., at age 15 by an acquaintance who forced him to paint houses during the day and guard an apartment complex at night. His sponsor took his paychecks and watched him on security cameras as he slept on the basement floor.
Juanito said that when he called the hotline in 2019, the person on the other end just took a report. “I thought they’d send the police or someone to check, but they never did that,” he said. “I thought they would come and inspect the house, at least.” He eventually escaped.
The horrible truth is that child labor is now wedged firmly into our economy, which is really efficient at spreading the pain. Even the increasing use of contractors instead of company employees is part of it: Child laborers were hired by a cleaning company to clean a JBS slaughterhouse in Worthington, Minnesota, and when a tip came in, the most the Labor Department could do was to fine the cleaning company $1.5 million. JBS said it had no idea the contractor was sending children to clean its factory, and so it fired the contractor — but suffered no other consequences.
Similarly, the factory where teenagers work on food lines packaging major brand snacks and cereals is run by a giant contractor, Hearthside Food Solutions, which has 39 factories all over the US, and
has been cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for 34 violations since 2019, including for unsafe conveyor belts at the plant where [15-year-old] Carolina found her job. At least 11 workers suffered amputations in that time. In 2015, a machine caught the hairnet of an Ohio worker and ripped off part of her scalp.
The history of accidents “shows a corporate culture that lacks urgency to keep workers safe,” an OSHA official wrote after the most recent violation for an amputation.
A statement from a Hearthside spokesperson expressed shock, shock that reporters said they found child laborers there.
“We strongly dispute the safety allegations made and are proud of our safety-first culture,” the statement read.
In a haunting set piece, Dreier describes a high school history class in which the teacher, who knows many of his students work, discusses Progressive Era muckraker Jacob Riis and his journalism that exposed child labor abuses — in front of a class where most of the kids were themselves exhausted from working all night, and unable to pay attention.
As ever, you should go read the whole story with this gift link, and Jesus Christ we need to fix this.
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