How many Americans start the day with a bowl of Cheerios and milk? Certainly thousands, and maybe even millions; it’s the largest cereal brand in the United States.
But there’s a dark underbelly to those cheerful yellow boxes, and to many other common household products, from Hyundai cars to Quaker Chewy granola bars. A recent New York Times investigation revealed widespread use of illegal child labor in factories that make these products and more. Staffing agencies and middlemen place children as young as 12 or 13 to work in jobs that are unambiguously prohibited, dangerous, and grossly inappropriate places for minors to work. Child labor is on the rise, and the newest revelations show just how extensive and exploitative it is. These horrifying stories were supposed to be in the history books, not something we see in 2023. How did this happen?
There’s plenty of explanations: partisan politics designed to divide and demonize foreign-born people, insufficient coordination among government agencies, grossly inadequate funding and enforcement of existing child protection and labor laws, and outdated statutes that allow large corporations to skirt workplace responsibility by using intermediaries.
Many will look to apportion blame, asking which federal agencies failed, who should have done what, and how things should have been handled differently. These are important questions that must be answered. But the current horrific situation is the result of a deeper problem, decades in the making: the demonization of government, deconstruction of the administrative state, and shrinking of government agencies. This contraction of government was a priority during the Reagan years and has remained a mainstay of conservative politics (except in relation to the military and police) ever since. Over time, even some Democrats have also adopted Reaganism’s implicit assumption that the right size for government is pretty darn small.
But if our refugee and labor agencies are starved for resources, and unable to perform their essential functions, can we really express surprise when we learn of 12-year-old factory workers? It’s the logical result of the freest of markets, as our predecessors learned early in the last century. Child labor isn’t a problem the private sector can solve, and even the most brilliant, committed public servants can’t fix things by rubbing two nickels together. We can—and must—have an economy without children in factories. But to stop child labor, we have to prioritize both children and labor.
Many of the children profiled in recent coverage were taken into custody at our southern border. They faced physical and sexual violence, human trafficking, forced gang recruitment and the very real possibility of death in their home countries and in flight. Rather than fall prey to these forces, they fled, often to join family in the U.S. They remain vulnerable even after arriving. Often these children or their families took out loans to pay for their travel, and if these loans are not repaid to smugglers or traffickers, the consequences can be real and dire for families left behind.
The system charged with their care is broken. It should be rebuilt to reflect the current reality and vulnerability of children. The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement has responsibility for care and placement of unaccompanied children; it houses children, often in shelters, until parents, family members, or sponsors are located. But ORR has limited legal authority or resources to act after a child is released. Meanwhile, its leadership is under concerted pressure from multiple sources, including Congress and government leadership, to move children out of care quickly. If they don’t, the office and its leadership are excoriated as failures.
Protecting children in these situations requires ongoing communication and coordination among multiple agencies, including ORR and Customs and Border Protection, along with local law enforcement and social service agencies. But the lines of authority, accountability, and critical information flow between the government agencies charged with caring for the children have become weak and fractured. Children who await legal hearings to determine their right to claim asylum should not be exploited and harmed for doing so. To prevent such outcomes, ORR should receive the funding it needs to ensure children’s safety, and those who starve the agency of such resources should be held accountable.
One might also ask: Why didn’t the Labor Department stop this? Aren’t they out on patrol? The short answer is: Our labor agencies try mightily to be effective, but they’re grossly underfunded, too. They simply don’t have the capacity to be proactive in a way that would allow ready detection of these cases. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (which enforces child labor, minimum wage, and other laws) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration have absurdly scant resources relative to the need. In 2019, the number of private sector workers per OSHA investigator was over 198,000. The ratio for Wage and Hour investigators wasn’t much better: more than 189,000 private sector workers per investigator.
Where they’re present, unions help prevent violations; they empower ordinary workers to speak out about malfeasance, and provide eyes and ears on the ground that stop abusive practices. But our union density is at record lows (around 6 percent for private sector workers) despite the current popularity of unions and of organizing. Outdated labor laws and fierce employer opposition make it very hard to form unions, and underfunding of the National Labor Relations Board exacerbates the barriers. During an unprecedented surge of union organizing, and increasingly sophisticated union-busting by corporations, the NLRB had to beg for funds to avoid furloughs last year, funds needed to hold union elections and address employer misconduct. (The amount of money ultimately allocated—$25 million—was a lifeline for the agency and yet a rounding error in the federal budget).
State labor enforcement agencies are similarly starved; some states don’t have any labor investigators at all. Meanwhile, household-name corporations often use “fissured” business models (like subcontracting or using staffing agencies) in order to avoid legal responsibility for the people who do work that is central to their business. This was the case in virtually all of the recent child labor situations. Large corporations want plausible deniability and our laws mostly allow it.
On Monday, the Biden administration announced an action plan to address the current child labor crisis, including creating a multi-agency task force, deploying all enforcement tools against companies using child labor, improving placement and follow-up for children seeking asylum, and ongoing coordination among the relevant agencies. The administration’s announcement also includes a request to Congress for more labor enforcement funding. These are all critical measures, but more should be done. The administration should collaborate with state and local child protection and labor enforcement agencies, and new laws (state or federal) should create joint liability for corporations benefiting from child labor, so they can’t hide behind intermediaries that do the dirty work. In addition, ORR should be authorized and resourced to ensure the safety and well-being of all children released to a sponsor.
Even if the new task force is effective and successful, Americans still need to reorient our thinking about the value of government. A society is defined by how it treats its most vulnerable members: children, sick people, the elderly. Our country is falling devastatingly short in this critical test of our character. We need a functioning state, an ethics of care, and a recognition that the shared endeavor of government is crucial for a humane society and requires support from all.
Who wants to pour a bowl of cereal and realize that children helped make it? That’s not the world any of us wants to live in, and fixing this situation should not be a partisan issue. Divided though our country may be, we should be able to agree that 12- and 13-year-olds should be worried about algebra and soccer practice, not on-the-job injuries or cleaning a factory floor. This isn’t some idyllic fantasy; it’s the bare minimum. But it won’t happen on its own. A robust, adequately funded, well-functioning government is essential to putting child labor back in the history books, where it belongs.