Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services announce new efforts to combat exploitative child labor
WASHINGTON – Since 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor has seen a 69 percent increase in children being employed illegally by companies. In the last fiscal year, the department found 835 companies it investigated had employed more than 3,800 children in violation of labor laws. The maximum civil monetary 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 takes these egregious violations very seriously and investigates every child labor complaint they receive and acts to hold employers accountable. On Feb. 17, 2023, the Department of Labor announced the resolution of one of the largest child labor cases in its history against Packers Sanitation Services Inc. LTD. The department currently has over 600 child labor investigations underway and continues to field complaints and initiate investigations to protect children.
At the same time, the U.S. has seen an influx in migrant children from Latin America fleeing violence and poverty, a majority of whom do not have a parent in the U.S..
“Every child in this country, regardless of their circumstance, deserves protection and care as we would expect for our own child,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra. “At Health and Human Services, we will continue to do our part to protect the safety and wellbeing of unaccompanied children by providing them appropriate care while they are in our custody; placing them in the custody of parents, relatives, and other appropriate sponsors after vetting; and conducting post-release services including safety and wellbeing calls. Everyone from employers to local law enforcement and civic leaders must do their part to protect children.”
“We see every day the scourge of child labor in this country, and we have a legal and a moral obligation to take every step in our power to prevent it. Too often, companies look the other way and claim that their staffing agency, or their subcontractor or supplier is responsible. Everyone has a responsibility here,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. “This is not a 19th century problem – this is a today problem. We need Congress to come to the table, we need states to come to the table. This is a problem that will take all of us to stop.”
As the challenge of child labor exploitation – particularly of migrant children – increases nationwide, the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services are announcing the following actions to increase their efforts to thoroughly vet sponsors of migrant children, investigate child labor violations and hold the companies accountable:
A Department of Labor-led Interagency Taskforce to Combat Child Labor Exploitation: The task force will further collaboration and improve information sharing among agencies, as well as advance the health, education, and well-being of children in the U.S. For instance, timely information regarding active child labor investigations, as appropriate, enables HHS to apply additional scrutiny in the sponsor vetting process when warranted because of geographic or other concerns. Through this task force, the agencies will also jointly conduct education and training initiatives in relevant communities.
A National Strategic Enforcement Initiative on Child Labor: As part of this new initiative, the department’s Wage and Hour Division will use data-driven, worker-focused strategies to initiate investigations where child-labor violations are most likely to occur. And, the division and the department’s Office of the Solicitor will use all available enforcement tools, including penalties, injunctions, stopping the movement of goods made with child labor, and criminal referrals where warranted.
Hold All Employers Accountable: The Department of Labor will hold all employers accountable to ensure child labor is removed from supply chains. This will include applying further scrutiny to companies doing business with employers using illegal child labor to increase corporate accountability for system abuses of child labor laws. Too frequently employers who contract for services are not vigilant about who is working in their facilities, creating child labor violations up and down the supply chain. With the increased reliance of staffing agencies and subcontracting, host companies are often claiming that they are unaware or unable to control child labor issues happening at their worksites.
Mandated Follow Up Calls for Unaccompanied Children Who Report Safety Concerns: HHS will require a follow-up call to any child who calls the Office of Refugee Resettlement National Call Center with a safety concern. ORRNCC currently refers every safety related call to the appropriate law enforcement agency or child protective services. This additional call will serve as a critical follow up with the child. And, ORRNCC will immediately incorporate language into its training materials to ensure former unaccompanied children who reach out to the helpline clearly understand which authorities their safety concerns will be reported to.
Expand Post Release Services for Unaccompanied Children: HHS will continue to work with Congress to provide sufficient resources for ORR to provide post release services to all children and sponsors by 2025. Under the Biden-Harris administration, ORR has increased its capacity to provide post release services to more children. In fiscal year 2023, ORR is on track to serve nearly 60 percent of children released with such services, up from 24 percent of children when President Biden took office, and ORR attempts to reach all children and sponsors with safety and wellbeing calls. Additional post release services include assistance in registering children for school, ensuring they understand the immigration legal process and can attend their court hearings, and help finding medical, mental health, and family counseling services for which they may be eligible.
Increased Funding for the Department of Labor’s Enforcement Agencies: The Department of Labor is calling on Congress to meet the funding request in the President’s forthcoming budget for the Wage and Hour Division and the Office of the Solicitor to investigate child labor cases. Between 2010 and 2019, the division lost 12 percent of its staff because it was nearly flat-funded during this period. And, the Office of the Solicitor has essentially been flat funded for more than a decade, resulting in the loss of more than 100 attorneys as costs have increased. With modest funding increases over the last few years, American Rescue Plan funding for COVID-related investigations, and a strong focus on hiring during the Biden-Harris administration, the agency has begun to increase its staffing levels. But it still has not received anything near the funding level the President requested in the FY2023 Budget to allow the agency to meaningfully rebuild its staff and enforcement capacity. The President’s request for the Wage and Hour Division was about $50 million higher than the amount the agency received in the FY2023 appropriations bill and his request for the Solicitor’s Office was also nearly $50 million higher.
Call on Congress to Increase Civil Monetary Penalties for Companies that Use Child Labor: 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.
Audit ORR Sponsor Vetting Process: HHS will conduct an audit over the next four weeks of the vetting process for potential sponsors who have previously sponsored an unaccompanied child. HHS is immediately reviewing current policies regarding its vetting requirements for potential sponsors who have previously sponsored unaccompanied children to ensure all necessary safeguards are in place without unnecessarily keeping children in government-funded, congregate care settings. HHS will provide additional training for case managers and staff on how to assess these cases. This audit builds on steps that HHS has already taken to increase vetting of sponsors, including updating the case management system to more easily identify cases where children could be released to an individual who has previously sponsored children.
New Training Material for Unaccompanied Children to Know Their Rights: ORR is creating new materials and new staff training to provide more information to unaccompanied children in care and potential sponsors about child labor laws in the U.S. to ensure children and sponsors know their rights and understand the legal restrictions on working under the age of 18.