WATCH: Padilla calls for employers to be held accountable for migrant child labor exploitation
June 15, 2023 - WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday, U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety, joined a Judiciary Committee hearing titled “Ensuring the Safety and Well-Being of Unaccompanied Children.” During the hearing, Padilla heard testimony from Terri Gerstein, Director, State and Local Enforcement Project at the Center for Labor and A Just Economy; Lorie Davidson, LCSW-C, Vice President for Children and Family Services at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS); and Venus Bradley, a foster parent.
In his opening remarks, Padilla condemned the labor exploitation of migrant children in the United States and called on the federal government to enforce the law and hold employers unlawfully exploiting migrant children accountable. He referenced his recent letter with Senator John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) to the CEOs of the major companies accused of child labor exploitation, calling on them to take full responsibility for the actions of their companies. He also criticized Republicans in Congress for their continued refusal to work to address our broken immigration system.
Padilla opened his questioning by expressing his frustration with CEOs of companies reported to have used migrant child labor and their lackluster response to calls from Padilla and Hickenlooper for them to hold themselves accountable and take action to prevent further child exploitation. He asked Ms. Gerstein what challenges existed in enforcing child protections, especially up the supply chain, and how Congress could help ensure children are protected. Gerstein agreed that companies often point fingers to their suppliers and contractors and do not take accountability for their exploitation. She then pointed out how federal funding at the Department of Labor is insufficient for preventing child labor exploitation and noted that these investigations are resource-intensive. She called on the government to work better to enforce strict standards.
In his concluding remarks, Padilla called on Congress and the federal government to enforce the law to hold unscrupulous employers accountable and to ensure that our federal agencies are working together to better protect migrant children from labor exploitation.
- PADILLA: I actually partnered with Senator Hickenlooper to send letters to 27 CEOs, CEOs of the major companies accused of the wrongdoing in that most recent round of reporting. Our letter demanded that they take immediate steps to stop the ill treatment of children. And according to the findings and the reporting, migrant children have reportedly been working in unsafe conditions and hazardous conditions and other unlawful circumstances.
We asked the CEOs to carefully examine their hiring procedures. We asked them to examine their workplace safety policies. And we asked them to review their compliance with wage and hour laws to prevent any further exploitation of children and to share with us their assessments. Now their responses were, I should say this, overwhelmingly lackluster, often filled with a finger pointing, ‘not our fault.” It’s a subcontractor issue, ‘not our fault.’ It’s a subsidiary issue, anything but actually taking accountability.
Ms. Gerstein, can you explain the challenges that exist in enforcing child labor protections at all levels of the supply chain? And what would you encourage Congress to do to ensure that children are better protected?
- GERSTEIN: So you’re absolutely right, the lead corporations do point a finger and deflect responsibility to suppliers and subcontractors and staffing agencies. The Fair Labor Standards Act defines employee very broadly but case law treats it very narrowly and makes it very hard to get accountability up the supply chain. What is needed [to address] the challenges and enforcing child labor protections, one is the funding limitations on the federal Department of Labor, they’re grossly underfunded relative to the need. Another challenge is the difficulty in going up the supply chain. These cases also are very resource intensive and difficult to enforce. If you look at the Federal Department of Labor’s PSSI case, it was an investigation that involved 100, they found over 100 minors working at multiple states. They did surveillance and warrants and multi-team investigator investigations, and interviewing many, many reluctant witnesses. These cases are hard to do. And the Department of Labor really needs the resources to do them effectively. In terms of liability up the supply chain, strict liability for violators up [to] the lead corporations for violations in their supply chain, or at least strict liability when there are repeat or widespread violations. And also, government contracting, the government can use its contracting abilities to not do business with lead corporations that have these violations in their supply chains.
More information about the hearing is available here.
Padilla’s opening remarks, as delivered, are available below:
One of the dark sides of our nation’s history that sadly we continue to fight today. Now every day in America, colleagues every day in our United States of America, school-aged children wake up and get ready for their day. But instead of putting on their tennis shoes and their backpacks in cities and towns across the country, too many of them are putting on steel toed boots, and work belts.
And they’re preparing to climb roofs, operate hazardous machinery, brave scolding hot kitchens in conditions that most Americans thought were outlawed long ago. These children wake up before the sun comes up to find day labor jobs or work in hazardous conditions overnight, and slaughterhouses. These are no exaggerations.
I think most Americans would be right to think that Congress has already acted to prevent kids from working dangerous jobs for a long number of hours. But because of the dire financial needs of their families back home, coupled with the disastrous immigration policies of the prior administration, and a repeated willingness of corporations to turn a blind eye, more and more unaccompanied immigrant children are slipping through the cracks.
Since 2018, just the last five years, since 2018, the Labor Department has seen an increase of 69% in children found to be employed illegally. In some instances, that’s kids as young as 12, having to fight tired eyes during their school day, only to go from there to work a night shift in a job. For others, it’s meant missing school entirely, whether it’s to put in more hours to send more money back home to their families, or just to pay their expenses and survive here in America.
As we will hear today from our witnesses, there are a few contributing factors that enable this fundamental moral failure to play out. While there have been some failures along the way to properly vet sponsors, most if not all children placed with sponsors could benefit from post release services, especially for vulnerable minors after they are released. But we can’t ignore the root of this problem.
The reality is that this problem is another direct result of our broken immigration system. During the Trump administration, our immigration system became so restrictive that families could not come to our border to apply for asylum together. This forced parents to send their kids alone, so at least they could escape to find safety. And because of that policy, the kids who made it here are being put in heartbreaking positions, positions that they likely wouldn’t be in, had their parents been able to lawfully seek asylum with them, as our laws allow.
So yes, there is a larger context to consider here. And too often I hear my Republican colleagues complain about border security, but refuse to take up or vote for meaningful reforms or immigration laws that enjoy bipartisan support. And somehow, they’re shocked when they learn of migrant children working long hours overnight and hazardous conditions. Or they limit the labor shortage without working to tap into the enormous pool of labor available to us– that’s historically been available to us through existing visa programs and other areas of our immigration system.
Now privately, I hear a lot of support for modernizing our immigration laws and how it’d be great for business, how it would be great for their local economy, their state’s economy, our national economy. But they would hold their support for expanding legal pathways for migrants to come here and help boost our economy. So we have to acknowledge the totality of this problem. If we are to work together to update our outdated immigration system. And Mr. Chair, count me in as well.
But on top of that, as we’ve learned from multiple expos, as over just the last several months, there is a pattern of willful ignorance that exists in America. It would be misleading to say that this exploitation was happening entirely in the shadows. The major corporations who benefit from this exploitation seem more than happy to turn the lights off, close the door, and count their profits. And often when we learned of child labor violations, we hear excuses by ownership, passing the buck to subsidiaries and contractors. We hear corporate value statements, reiterating zero tolerance policies. But those policies have become hard to take seriously when they’re repeatedly issued for damage control. They fall flat when the dust settles.
In April of this year, Senator Hickenlooper and I wrote to 27 CEOs of major US companies asking about their compliance with child labor laws. And here’s what we heard back: well written, carefully worded responses, but not much accountability. So that’s not enough for me. Because if the very companies who are employing this children, dozens of hours each week, aren’t willing to take ownership of their shortcomings, then nothing will change. Yes, we have the laws on the books already. But now we need to support the Department of Labor and the Department of Justice in doing their work to enforce the law and hold employers accountable. So I’m looking to hearing more from our witnesses on just how dire conditions are for these children in reality, today, in the United States of America, and what they see as a path forward to protect them, protecting children, who should have never been in those circumstances to begin with.
Source: Senator Alex Padilla