The United States government has announced plans to clamp down on child labour in the country following a surge in violations and news reports detailing the illegal employment of underage refugees and migrants in dangerous industries.
US officials said on Monday that the Department of Labor had seen a nearly 70 percent increase in child labour violations since 2018, with 835 companies found to have violated child labour laws in the last fiscal year alone.
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Officials told reporters during a conference call that US President Joe Biden’s administration is probing the employment of children at companies, including Hearthside Food Solutions and suppliers to Hyundai Motor.
To try to curb the rise, a joint task force by the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services — responsible for unaccompanied minors arriving in the country — will seek to improve information sharing between the two agencies.
A parallel initiative by the Department of Labor will focus on better enforcement of existing laws, especially in regions and industries where offences are most widespread. According to existing laws, the maximum fine for breaking child labour laws is $15,138 per case.
It was not clear whether the probe will lead to criminal charges, fines or other penalties. Hearthside said in a statement the company was “appalled” at allegations of child labour and would “work collaboratively with the Department of Labor in their investigation and do our part to continue to abide by all local, state and federal employment laws”.
The uptick in illegal child labour coincides with a massive influx of unaccompanied children fleeing poverty and violence in Latin America, resulting in the referral of 130,000 minors to US government shelters in the last fiscal year.
“This is not a 19th-century problem — this is a today problem,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in a statement on Monday, calling for a vast mobilisation of resources to tackle the problem.
“We need Congress to come to the table, we need states to come to the table.”
Children are allowed to start work at 14 in the US, subject to restrictions on their working hours, but employment in certain workplaces such as slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants is off limits for minors.
A weekend expose by The New York Times reported on an increased presence of migrant minors — some as young as 12 years old — working in sectors across the US economy, from car factories to construction sites and delivery services.