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Hundreds of migrant children work long hours in jobs that violate child labor laws

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Hundreds of migrant children are working long hours under grueling conditions in the U.S. Most of them come into the country alone in need of ways to support themselves and their families back home. But overnight shifts and dangerous work violate long-standing child labor laws. Brandeis professor David Weil has worked as a senior official in the U.S. Labor Department under then-President Obama. He joins me now. Welcome to the program.

DAVID WEIL: Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: Reuters and the New York Times have recently published investigations about how children as young as 13 are working full-time jobs, like in factories and at construction sites, which is against the law. Has this practice grown in the past several years? Because it just - it feels so shocking to even state that.

WEIL: It really is shocking, and it has really exploded in the last few years. There's always been problems of child labor in different sectors, but we haven't seen such widespread numbers of children working in meatpacking and in auto manufacturing and food production since really the 1930s.

RASCOE: Part of the issue is that you have these big-name companies like Hyundai and General Mills, and then they use these subcontractors and these subcontractors then use staffing agencies to make their hires. And so it seems like everything is being outsourced, and that makes it easier for companies to pass the buck. Like, is that right?

WEIL: Yes, I think that's very true. And, in fact, it's really the culmination of a change we've seen for a long time in our economy, where lead companies like Hyundai, like General Mills, used to have their own direct employees, and they have begun to use more and more contractors and then subcontractors, staffing agencies, labor brokers to carry out their work and to continue to pursue their branded work, but distancing themselves from all the responsibilities that normally should come with employment, including making sure that children aren't working in their facilities.

RASCOE: Are these companies willfully hiring minors, or do they just not bother to check? Or are these children using fake papers? Like, what's happening?

WEIL: Well, it's a little bit of all of those things. And it gets back to the fact that they're often these labor brokers or staffing agencies who are locally seeking these children, but at the same time, they're then feeding them into these larger companies that should have practices to detect whether they're actually hiring large numbers of children.

RASCOE: So why aren't federal and state governments able to crack down on this?

WEIL: Well, one of the biggest problems is our main federal agencies, like the Wage and Hour Division that I used to head, have not been adequately resourced for years. So, you know, I've done a calculation of how many investigators relative to the workplaces that they're responsible for we have now compared to 1938 when this agency was started. And the agency in 1938 had 64 times the relative number of inspectors to workplaces. And we've under-resourced our agencies. We've under-resourced the solicitor's office that does the legal support to bring cases like this. And if you overlay that with this kind of complexity we now have in the workplace where you have all these layers of people between the workers and the lead companies, it makes that task all the more difficult.

RASCOE: Some 130,000 unaccompanied minors came into the U.S. last year. The media investigation suggests that the federal government is giving at least some of these children to sponsors who then end up sending the kids to work instead of sending them to school, and that those sponsors then take the children's wages. Like, why is this happening?

WEIL: I mean, whenever you have an explosion like this of so much child labor, I have to say, there must be multiple things breaking down. One side that is breaking down is the restructuring of businesses, but the other side is we are seeing an unprecedented number of unaccompanied children. And from the reporting we've seen in the New York Times most recently, the kind of vetting that normally the Health and Human Services Department should be doing have not been doing diligently. And that's leading some of these children to not be going to the homes of relatives, to people who'll care for them. And that only adds to their vulnerability and both their need to find economic opportunity and then their vulnerability if they're being put and placed in jobs that they clearly shouldn't be like in meatpacking.

RASCOE: The Biden administration has said that it plans to crack down on illegal child labor. What do you think would be some effective solutions?

WEIL: Clearly, HHS needs to very quickly change their policies to make sure that these children, when they are brought into this country, are well protected. And that means not only being sent to responsible households, but making sure that they have economic support so that they don't face the kind of pressure that's leading them to seek this kind of work. At the same time, you need to have our enforcement agencies to have the capacity to pursue these cases all the way up the chain, all the way to the top companies at the lead of these practices, and - this is what would take Congress to act on - to have higher consequences when you violate child labor penalties.

RASCOE: That's Brandeis Professor David Weil. Thank you so much for joining us.

WEIL: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.