Biden administration vows to crack down on companies exploiting child labor

The Biden administration announced new steps to crack down on child labor violations, including tougher investigations of the companies who may benefit from the work. It comes days after a New York Times investigation into the explosive growth of migrant child labor across the U.S. Hannah Drier, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who broke the story, joined Geoff Bennett to discuss.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    The Biden administration announced new steps today to crack down on child labor violations, including tougher investigations of the companies who may benefit from the work.

    It comes days after a New York Times investigation into the explosive growth of migrant child labor across the U.S. The Times found a major surge in child migrant labor in every state and under punishing working conditions, on factory floors, inside slaughterhouses, and atop buildings with children working as roofers.

    The Times found at least a dozen underage migrant workers have died on the job since 2017.

    Hannah Dreier is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who broke the story, and she joins us now.

    So, Hannah, tell us about some of the children you encountered and the harrowing stories you uncovered.

  • Hannah Dreier, The New York Times:

    Thank you so much for featuring this story.

    And, I mean, when I first started this reporting a year ago, I thought that this would really be an agriculture story. I thought that kids would be working, but mostly on farms, maybe in restaurants. And I was shocked that I actually found most of these kids outside of factories, so in parking lots of meat processing plants, outside of auto parts suppliers.

    And the kids were young. I talked to a 13-year-old who had just come to this country a few months ago. He was looking for his first day of work at a day laborer site. I talked to a lot of kids who were making snack foods. Some of them were making Nature Valley bars, Chewy bars. And I ended up spending a lot of time talking to one girl who came to this country when she was 14 and ended up making Cheerios.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Tell us more about her.

  • Hannah Dreier:

    So her name is Carolina.

    She found herself in Guatemala living with her grandmother during the pandemic. There wasn't a lot of food. There wasn't a lot of electricity, and she decided to come to the U.S. So she came walking. And she was encountered at the border. She went through a government shelter and was released to her aunt, who she'd never met, in Michigan.

    And her aunt said, sure, you can come and stay with me, but I can't really provide for you. We are living on $600 a week. And so when I met her, Carolina was going to ninth grade every day. And then every night, she was working eight hours a night in a dangerous factory, a place where there are fast-moving conveyor belts, there's mechanical arms, and she would work until midnight each night, get a couple hours' sleep, and then go back to school the next day.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    We should emphasize something that you note in your reporting, and it's that these children didn't sneak into the U.S. undetected. The federal government knows they're here.

    And the Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for matching them with sponsors. But you note in your reporting that the systems meant to protect children have really broken down, especially since 2021, when this problem really exploded.

  • Hannah Dreier:

    I mean, one thing to understand here is that the nature of who's coming across the border has changed. So, there used to be some number of kids who would come here unaccompanied. And they were mostly released to their parents.

    Now the majority of these kids that are coming here, they're really being sent by their parents. And they're living with more distant relatives, family friends, sometimes strangers. And once they're released by the government to these people who are supposed to take care of them, there's no follow-up for the majority of these kids.

    They get a phone number for a hot line that they can call. And several of these children told us that they ended up in real trafficking situations, called the hot line and never heard back.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Well, the Labor Department is supposed to find and punish child labor violations.

    But you spoke with inspectors in a dozen states, and each said that their offices are understaffed, and that they could barely respond to complaints, let alone open new investigations. Now the Biden administration, because of your reporting, says it's going to crack down on these violations.

    How is that going to work when the Department of Labor is saying they can't keep up with the current demand?

  • Hannah Dreier:

    That is a great question.

    One thing that I found really surprising and kind of appalling with this reporting was how easy it was to find these kids. I mean, I thought I would have to crack some kind of subterranean trafficking ring. But what I actually did was, I showed up in different towns and cities, and, by the next day, I was usually talking to a migrant child who'd come here without their parents and was working in illegal conditions.

    So, throughout this whole process, I just kept asking myself, why isn't the Department of Labor here? And one thing that inspectors told me is, there hasn't been an emphasis on proactive child labor investigations. And that's one thing that hopefully will change.

    With this new Biden initiative, the Department of Labor is going to launch a new operation to go out, not just respond to tips, but go actively try to search for these kids.

    And the same staffing issues that have been there will be there. But I think a lot of people who work with these children are celebrating that part of the announcement, at least, today.

  • Geoff Bennett:


    Help us understand. I mean, these kids aren't working because they want to. They're working because they have to. They are under intense pressure to earn money, to send it back home as remittances. What do solutions look like, when that pressure will still remain?

  • Hannah Dreier:

    I mean, solutions for immigration issues are tortured.

    In a lot of cases, I think they're going because their parents can't go to the U.S. Their parents would like to be here instead of them working and sending home remittances. But the way the system is set up right now, those parents know they will be turned around at the border. And so, instead, these kids come.

    One thing that a lot of child welfare advocates think is, at least, at the very least, the government could provide these kids with social workers, with someone to check up and monitor if they have fallen into a bad, exploitative situation.

    Another thing that struck me is that a lot of these kids actually could work legally. They're not here undocumented. The government knows they're here. And if they had access to legal services, they could get work permits and be working at McDonald's. But because they can't get that lawyer, they end up in these jobs that will take fake Social Security numbers.

    And it's sort of the worst-case scenario in every way.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Hannah Dreier, thanks for your time and for sharing your reporting with us. We appreciate it.

  • Hannah Dreier:

    Thank you.

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