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As record numbers of migrant children enter the United States without parents, many of them end up being forced into dangerous, exploitative jobs at companies flouting child labor laws — including at factories and farms across Michigan.
In an attempt to hold these companies responsible for endangering vulnerable children, U.S. Reps. Hillary Scholten (D-Grand Rapids) and Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) announced legislation on Wednesday that would significantly increase civil monetary penalties for those who violate child labor laws. It comes on the heels of a Feb. 25 New York Times exposé on migrant child labor in the United States, including in Michigan.
“Instead of going to school, these children are on construction sites, in meatpacking facilities and assembly lines in blatant violation of our labor standards,” Scholten, a freshman lawmaker and former immigration attorney, said during a Wednesday afternoon press conference.
Currently, companies that break child labor laws face few penalties — if they face repercussions at all, Scholten said. Under the 85-year-old Fair Labor Standards Act, the maximum first-time penalty for a child labor violation is $15,138 per child. There is no minimum penalty.
“These fines, when they’re enforced, are mere pennies for most of the companies and corporations that break these laws,” Scholten said.
The bipartisan Justice for Exploited Children Act, co-sponsored by Scholten and Mace, would “raise these violations to nearly 10 times the current amount” and are “designed as a deterrent and to further ensure that no child is exploited in this way going forward,” Scholten said.
As the number of unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S. climbs to record-high numbers — about 130,000 in 2022, three times what it was five years earlier, according to federal data — it’s crucial to address labor violations by companies profiting off of exploiting children, the lawmakers said.
The legislation would increase the maximum amount for a first-time penalty that doesn’t involve a child’s death to $132,270. The minimum penalty would be $5,000.
For a labor violation that involves a child’s death, a company could be fined as much as $601,150 under the proposed legislation. There would be a minimum fine of $25,000. Under current federal law, the maximum fine for a labor violation involving a child’s death is $68,801. There is no minimum.
“As a mother, it’s heartbreaking to see stories of children subjected to illegal work conditions here in the United States,” Mace, who did not attend Wednesday’s press conference, said in a prepared statement. “It is our responsibility to protect children and ensure they are not subjected to the exploitation of child labor. The current penalty is not enough of a deterrence, and we must send a strong message which shows the exploitation of children will not be tolerated in any form.”
The New York Times article that spurred this legislation, which opened with an anecdote about a 15-year-old girl bagging cereal after midnight in Grand Rapids’ Hearthside Food Solutions plant, was based on interviews with more than 100 migrant child workers across the country.
From 12-year-old roofers in Florida and Tennessee to children making auto parts for General Motors and Ford factories in Michigan, those who spoke with the Times detailed working conditions that left them exhausted and afraid.
In a statement to the Times, Hearthside said “we strongly dispute the safety allegations made and are proud of our safety-first culture.”General Motors and Ford told the Times the companies “took the allegations seriously and would investigate.”
“As an attorney that has worked on protecting vulnerable migrant children in our community, as a mother myself of two children who are the same ages as some of the kids in the story. … I knew I had to take immediate action,” said Scholten, who worked as an immigration attorney for the U.S. Justice Department under former President Barack Obama’s administration and as an attorney for the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.
After Scholten asked the White House to do so, President Joe Biden’s administration announced an interagency task force that brings together the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services to address the exploitation of migrant children.
That task force will increase the vetting of sponsors — those who an unaccompanied minor lives with after entering the United States.
“Children are living with sponsors who may or may not know these children are working, or they’re complicit in making them work,” Scholten said.
In order for the legislation to move forward, it will need to receive the greenlight from Republican leaders in the GOP-controlled U.S. House. Scholten said she’s optimistic this will happen in light of the bill being bipartisan.
“It will be up to Republican leadership to get this done; we’re imploring them to please take this up because we need our workforce engaged on this issue,” Scholten said.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) has introduced similar legislation, the Child Labor Prevention Act, in the Senate.
Schatz’s bill also would increase maximum fines for violations and would also establish new criminal penalties for violators.
Scholten noted Schatz’s bill does not yet have Republican support and said she did not include criminal penalties in her legislation because she believed it would keep it from passing.
“I didn’t want to tie it to a criminal penalty, which has seemed to be a little bit more of a deterrent for folks in the past,” Scholten said.
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