Mar 1, 2023 - Podcasts

American companies using illegal child labor

The federal government says the illegal use of child labor in the U.S. is on the rise. In the last fiscal year, 835 companies employed more than 3,800 children illegally, according to the Labor Department. The department announced new crackdowns Monday following a New York Times investigation published over the weekend into child labor law violations involving migrant children.

  • Plus, a test for Trump as conservatives gather in D.C.

Guests: Axios' Nathan Bomey and Josh Kraushaar

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Naomi Shavin, Lydia McMullen-Laird and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

Go Deeper:

  • Department of Labor plans child labor crackdown after alleged violations
  • Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.
  • Hyundai said last week it's divesting its stake in an Alabama metal stamping plant that's among several suppliers under investigation for employing kids as young as 12, according to Reuters.
  • The company also said it's "implementing new, more stringent workforce standards throughout its supply chain."
  • Packing Sanitation Services said in a statement that it "has a zero-tolerance policy against employing anyone under the age of 18" and confirmed that none of the underage workers identified by the Department of Labor still work there. The company said it's taken steps to "strengthen our policies in this area."
  • Hearthside said in a statement, "We will 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."


NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Wednesday, March 1.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Today on the show: a test for Trump as conservatives gather in DC.

But first: the American industries and companies using illegal child labor – that’s today’s One Big Thing.

NIALA: The illegal use of child labor in the U.S. is on the rise, according to the Department of Labor. It reports that since 2018, there has been a 69% increase in children being employed illegally by companies.

On Monday, the department announced new crackdowns, on the heels of a New York Times investigation published over the weekend into child labor law violations involving migrant children.

These minors were found to be illegally employed in as many as 20 states, and in facilities making products for companies including J Crew, General Motors, Ben and Jerry’s and more.

Axios’ Nathan Bomey has been reporting on this – Nathan first, can you remind us what actually constitutes illegal child labor in this country?

NATHAN BOMEY: Well, it's not illegal for a young person to work at age 14 or 15 or 16, but they're not allowed to work in any sort of dangerous job, and they're also not allowed to work too many hours in a given week or in a given day. They're not allowed to do night shifts, that sort of thing. So that is one aspect of child labor violations. And then the other aspect is just: kids under 14 in America are not allowed to have jobs.

NIALA: Nathan, I think it's really shocking to people that this number is going up in the U.S.?

NATHAN: Yeah, I, I think that child labor seems to a lot of people like an issue that was from the past or from some foreign country, but the reality is that child labor violations are happening here, and they're happening now. A lot of it happens underground. These are companies that do things that you might not know about in some cases. But in other cases, they're actually products that we all buy and we have in our homes, and so without realizing it, we may be relying on child labor to get some of the things that we use on a daily basis.

NIALA: Are there industries that are especially implicated in using illegal child labor?

NATHAN: There's a few different industries and companies that have been cited here in the New York Times report and by the Department of Labor. For example, in the manufacturing industry, we're seeing some accusations that manufacturers are employing kids. Hyundai, in particular in the south, has been under investigation by the Department of Labor for employing kids in a contract facility. This is like an auto parts plant that makes parts for Hyundai vehicles. And so the other aspect of the economy where we’re supposedly seeing this is in food manufacturing, food processing, meat processing in particular. A company called Packing Sanitation Services was fined 1.5 million by the Department of Labor for allegedly employing kids in 13 different meat packing plants. And these are companies that you and I both know we're talking about, Tyson Foods, Cargill, JBS, the major meat companies throughout America, are being accused of having kids on the payroll.

NIALA: What incentives or forces are in place to lead to something like this happening?

NATHAN: I think the economy, you know, says a lot. For starters, there's a really tight job market and so companies are feeling pressure to get people in the door to do jobs and they are feeling pressured to raise wages. And I talked with one labor economist who said, some companies are clearly taking the short route. They're saying, I don't want to raise wages, so I will get someone who will do the job for a lot less. And that leads to breaking the law. Uh, you know, the other aspect is probably there's not been a lot of enforcement. You know, most of the companies tend to say, either we did not realize this was happening and we're going to end this right now, or they are not acknowledging it at all. But you know, when I talked with the labor economist at the WE Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, he said that what happens a lot of times in these situations is that companies will end up getting the child labor through a third party. So that kind of gives them plausible deniability where they can say, “we don't employ the kids, it was this other company that provided the kids to us, and they're the ones violating the law.”

NIALA: And then the New York Times investigation focused specifically on migrant children. What sets that population apart when we're talking about this issue of child labor?

NATHAN: Migrant children are just by their very definition in a very vulnerable place. They may not have the kind of economic security that another child might have. And so in some cases, they're actually providing for their families from a financial basis, and they may actually be sending money back. And so, there may be pressure there to make money to make that paycheck. And it may be, uh, that they're not in school or that they feel like they need to take a job even if they are in school. And the time story says that, uh, the Health and Human Services Department has not done a great job keeping track of migrant kids, and then this allows them to end up in this underground economy.

NIALA: You mentioned there's a new crackdown by the Department of Labor. What will that consist of?

NATHAN: The Department of Labor says that they're going to be doing a crackdown by basically organizing inter-agency task force, because there are various agencies throughout the federal government that have some responsibility for this. I think that they want some legislation as well to not just give them more money, but also increase the violation. I think it's something like $15,000 per kid. They say $15,000 per child employed in a company illegally is not nearly enough so we'll see if they can get Congress to take action to increase that standard.

NIALA: That’s Axios business reporter Nathan Bomey – and you can find comments from the companies Nathan reached out to in his reporting. We’ll put those are in our show notes. Thanks Nathan.

NATHAN: Thank you


In a moment: what to watch at this week’s MAGA-dominated CPAC.

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today, I'm Niala Boodhoo. The annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC begins in Maryland today, and it's typically a pretty big deal, featuring the most ambitious conservative politicians in the country. But this year, things look a little different. Axios’ senior political correspondent Josh Kraushaar is here to explain. Hey Josh!

JOSH KRAUSHAAR: Great to be here Niala.

NIALA: Former President Trump will be at CPAC Florida. Governor Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence are reportedly skipping this big event. Do we know why?

JOSH: Look, Ron DeSantis is starting his own book tour. His book came out on Tuesday. You could call that convenient timing or inconvenient timing, but someone who would normally have a very wrapped constituency at CPAC will not be there in DeSantis.

NIALA: There have been some news reports that Mike Pence and Ron DeSantis are staying away in part because of a controversy around some allegations that have been levied against the CPAC chairman. Do you, have you heard anything from either of those camps about that?

JOSH: I have not heard directly from those campaigns, but look, that, that is an elephant in the room, if you will. The chairman of CPAC, ACU, Matt Schlapp, is dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct that are being litigated. They're, they've been publicly reported. But look, there are a lot of big names that are gonna be at CPAC. You do have Trump, Trump's given the keynote on, on Saturday afternoon. Haley, Pompeo, Jim Jordan, you know, if you just looked at the guest list itself, I wouldn't necessarily know there was a scandal and controversy going on behind the scenes.

NIALA: Can you back up a second and give us sort of the outside the beltway understanding of why CPAC has been such a big deal for the Republican party?

JOSH: Well, historically, Niala CPAC has been a good barometer of where the Republican grassroots, where the base, uh, has been. It has not necessarily been reflective of where the overall party is. Rand Paul used to be the, the Kentucky Senator used to be the guy that won the CPAC straw poll, and he never really made any traction. Donald Trump was one of the exceptions to the rule. Mitt Romney was not, you know, a huge, uh, supported that much at CPAC and he won the nomination not that long ago. So, right now CPAC is MAGA world. It used to be more of the traditional ideological conservatives, there was much more principled. They may have been much more conservative than your average Republican voter, but there were a lot more principles, uh, driving the attendees. And, you know, it's gonna be interesting, even though DeSantis is not gonna be showing up at CPAC, they do have a straw poll at the end of the conference.

His name is gonna be on the ballot. So it'll be interesting to see what Trump does versus DeSantis, how they perform against each other with the CPAC crowd.

NIALA: So given what you've said, where does CPAC factor into the GOP and the 2024 Presidential campaign?

JOSH: It is where the energy of the party is, even if it may not make up a, a huge share of the voters. Ukraine is a good, good example where, If you look at the polls, the majority of Republicans still support, strong engagement, helping Ukraine financing, the war effort against Russia. That, that's a traditional hawkish republican position. The vast majority of these CPAC speakers are from the either the isolationist or the national conservative wing of the party. They're more Rand Paul and Josh Hawley and JD Vance. They think that we should spend more money at home than abroad. It's part of really the MAGA movement but I think the biggest highlight is gonna be how Trump is received.

NIALA: Josh Kraushaar is a senior political correspondent for Axios. Thanks, Josh.

JOSH: Thanks, Niala.


NIALA: That’s all we’ve got for you today! If you have a moment to leave us a starred review on Apple podcasts, we’d really appreciate it - it helps others find our show.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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