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Amid a child labor crisis, U.S. state governments are loosening regulations

Unaccompanied immigrant minors wait to be processed by Border Patrol agents after they crossed the Rio Grande into south Texas on April 29, 2021.
John Moore
Getty Images
Unaccompanied immigrant minors wait to be processed by Border Patrol agents after they crossed the Rio Grande into south Texas on April 29, 2021.

A series of investigative reports over the last few months has revealed that migrant children, mostly from Central America, are working in some of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S.

New York Times investigative journalist Hannah Dreierhas interviewed more than 100 migrant children working in violation of child labor laws across 20 states.

"I talked to a 12-year-old girl in Alabama who was working overnight stamping auto parts. I talked to a 12-year-old in Florida who came to this country and the next day was put to work roofing houses," Dreier says.

Dreier met one 13-year-old boy in Michigan who worked 12-hour shifts at an egg farm, six days a week. "He told me that really he wanted to go to school, but he hadn't understood how expensive things were in this country," she says.

Dreier estimates that some 250,000 children have crossed into the U.S. without their parents in the last two years, and that the majority of them wind up working full-time jobs.

"These are jobs working for household brands like Cheerios, Cheetos, Ford," she says. "These are jobs that used to go to undocumented immigrants. Now they go to undocumented child migrants."

Meanwhile, Washington Post business reporter Jacob Bogage says a Florida-based conservative think tank called the Foundation for Government Accountability and its lobbying group, the Opportunity Solutions Project, are spearheading an effort to relax child labor laws across the country. Just last month, the Iowa Senate passed a bill allowing minors as young as 14 to work night shifts, and states like Missouri and Ohioare considering bills that would allow teenagers to work longer hours in jobs that were previously deemed too dangerous.

"In Iowa right now, we have this bill advancing that would roll back vast portions of the state's child labor protections," Bogage says. "This is part of a movement that we're seeing across the country. ... This is really a nationwide effort going statehouse-by-statehouse that relaxes some of these regulations."

Interview highlights

On interviewing a 15-year-old who works packaging Cheerios

Dreier: Carolina came on her own from Guatemala last year when she was 14. Like a lot of the kids I talked to, she told me that after the pandemic, food was scarce in her village. Even drinking water was scarce. There weren't jobs. And so she decided to leave and come to this country where she thought life might be easier. She weighed 84 pounds when she got to the border, and she had an aunt here who she had never met. The aunt took her in, but explained that she was already supporting her own children. She didn't have a lot of extra money. So Carolina went to work at a factory packaging Cheerios, and she would go to ninth grade during the day and then work eight-hour shifts right after school until midnight and then get up again at 6 a.m. the next day.

When I talked to her, she was getting sick a lot. Her stomach was hurting. It's very intensive work. You sort of can't take your eyes off the assembly line. It's work where people have gotten their fingers amputated. It can be really dangerous. And she was skipping school more and more because she was just struggling to get through the days without any sleep.

On the lack of support systems for these kids

Dreier: I think the teachers feel really torn. They see that children are being put in situations that a child should never be put in, and yet there is no support for these kids. So what the teachers are telling me is that, yes, they know that this is not right and they worry for some of the people that these kids are living with. Sometimes kids are living with uncles, but thousands of these children are living with strangers. One of the real problems here is that there is not a support system for these children. So it's not like the foster care system where there's a social worker who's going to be checking up on these kids or sort of some support in place if things go wrong. With these migrant children, they get released from a shelter to a sponsor and then there's sort of nothing else. There's no follow-up. There's not a simple solution for them. And so for teachers seeing all of this, the question is, what's the alternative? What would be better? It's not clear.

On the government's reaction to this reporting

Dreier: Health and Human Services and the Biden administration largely has said that they had no idea so many of these children were ending up working full time in dangerous jobs. They said that they were shocked. They made a series of changes as soon as our article came out two months ago. And that, for me, has really been an open question because from my point of view, I found these children working in all 50 states. They were not hard to find. And so I have wondered, could it really be that nobody had any clue that this was happening?

On the Dept. of Health and Human Services hotline

Dreier: They called the number asking for help and what the kids have told me is nobody ever called them back. One of the worst situations I heard of was a child named Juanito who came to this country, was living with an adult, put to work, he was actually sleeping in a basement. His sponsor had set up three cameras to watch him at all times and was taking his paychecks. He told me that he called and asked for help and he thought at least maybe the police would come and check out the house, somebody might come and knock on the door and instead nothing happened. He ended up escaping eventually on his own. When I asked Health and Human Services about this, they told me that yes, they did not have a policy of calling these children back or going out once they were contacted. That's something that they have now changed, and they say that they will be calling back kids who reach out for help.

On companies paying nominal fines for exploiting children

Dreier: One thing employers told me again and again is that they are struggling to find people to do this grueling work. Nobody wants to take the night shift. Nobody wants to work on the cleaning crew at the slaughterhouse. And so companies are turning to staffing agencies to try to fill these shifts — and the staffing agencies are then bringing in children. One thing I was surprised to learn is that child labor is almost never a criminal offense. It's a civil issue, and the maximum fine is $15,000. So when we're talking about a company like Pepsi or Wal-Mart, they're going to make that back in a matter of minutes, maybe seconds. Even when a child dies, these companies stay in business and continue on. I found one recent case where a 15-year-old fell from a 50-foot roof in Alabama. His employer paid a fine, but they're still operating and have just sort of continued on.

On how major brands claim ignorance about child labor

I talk to children who are making Flamin' Hot Cheetos every night, and they told me their lungs were burning from that spicy dust. They were doing this grueling work night after night, but they weren't working directly for this big brand.

Dreier: This has to do with how manufacturing has sort of fissured into different levels. So if you are trying to produce Flamin' Hot Cheetos, it's not as simple as a worker is going to work directly for the Cheetos brand. Cheetos is going to go to a manufacturer, and that manufacturer will then go to a staffing agency. So I talk to children who are making Flamin' Hot Cheetos every night, and they told me their lungs were burning from that spicy dust. They were doing this grueling work night after night, but they weren't working directly for this big brand. So when we then went to Cheetos, they said, "Oh, well, we have no idea this was happening. This is in violation of our policies." And it creates this strange situation where you can easily go to the place where this product is being made and talk to children who are getting off shift at 4 in the morning, and yet the brand itself can still claim ignorance.

On conflicts between state child-labor laws and the federal law

The result of these state proposals that would make it harder for federal officials to do their jobs.

Bogage: There's federal law, the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was passed in 1938 — I mean, this bill is nearly 100 years old — that codifies a basic floor of protections for children in the workplace. It says how many hours children can work and says in what environments they can work, what jobs they can do. What we end up seeing is federal law and state law in direct conflict. But the result of these state proposals ... would make it harder for federal officials to do their jobs.

On laws prohibiting state governments from requiring a minor to obtain a work permit

Bogage: It's important to understand how a child labor violation is investigated. The paperwork here, believe it or not, is actually very important. If I'm a federal child labor investigator and I go down to Arkansas because I want to investigate reports of minors working at chicken processing plants, which, by the way, multiple chicken processing plants in Arkansas have been cited forillegally employing minors. The first thing I do is I show up at the state unemployment office and I say, give me all of the working papers, all of the permits for the minors that are employed in your state, because I want to look at those to see if they're accurate. I want to know where I should be devoting my resources, where I should start my investigation. The Arkansaslegislation and the legislation in Missouri and Georgia and Iowa would eliminate that paper trail.

Amy Salit and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Acacia Squires adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley
Tonya Mosley is a correspondent and former host of Here & Now, the midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the award-winning podcast Truth Be Told and a regular contributing interviewer for Fresh Air with Terry Gross.