U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday introduced a bipartisan bill that would raise penalties on employers who violate child labor laws, in the wake of reporting and federal investigations that found a growing number of companies employing underage migrant workers in dangerous factory settings.
The bill, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, follows a similar Democrat-led effort proposed this month in the Senate. The Department of Labor has also taken steps to increase enforcement of child labor violations and called on Congress to boost penalties.
Reuters in a series of stories published last year found migrant children, some as young as 12, were manufacturing car parts at suppliers to Korean auto giant Hyundai in Alabama and working in chicken processing plants in the state. This year, the New York Times reported on migrant kids at factories around the country making products for major U.S. brands.
The Labor Department has seen a nearly 70% increase in child labor violations since 2018, including in hazardous occupations, with 835 companies found to have violated child labor laws in the last fiscal year. The department recently fined a cleaning company for employing more than 100 kids on overnight shifts at meat processing facilities in eight states. Some had been injured by hazardous chemicals.
Under current federal law, the maximum civil monetary penalty for a child labor violation is $15,138 per child. The House bill introduced by Democratic Congresswoman Hillary Scholten of Michigan and Republican congresswoman Nancy Mace of South Carolina would increase the penalty to nearly 10 times that amount if passed, Scholten said.
The bill would ensure agencies “have the tools and the teeth to enforce these laws,” she said, citing coverage of the issue by Reuters and the New York Times as spurring her to action on this issue. The Times included reporting on kids working in Scholten’s home state of Michigan.
“Children should be in school,” she said, “not factories with dangerous working conditions.”
This month, six Democratic Senators led by U.S. Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, introduced a similar bill that would sharply increase civil fines and also impose stronger criminal penalties for repeat or willful violations.
Scholten said she is coordinating with other lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House and members of the Democrat-majority Senate, including Schatz, in hopes of moving child labor legislation forward.
U.S. federal law prohibits people under age 16 from working in most factory settings. Those under 18 are barred from the most dangerous jobs in industrial plants.
The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938, was designed in part to keep children out of dangerous workplaces. Following recent press investigations, labor experts and policy-makers have questioned whether existing enforcement and penalties go far enough to deter employers.
Reuters first reported last July that children, mostly from Central America, were working in a Hyundai-owned subsidiary in Luverne, Alabama called SMART. In December, Reuters revealed the problem was far more widespread and reported that local and federal authorities were probing whether at least 10 suppliers to Hyundai (005380.KS) and its sister company Kia (000270.KS) employed underage workers.
In February, 33 Democratic lawmakers led by Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee signed a letter to the Labor Secretary urging immediate action to rid Hyundai’s supply chain of child labor.
“These companies are obviously willing to take the gamble they’re not going to get caught when the stakes are as low as they are,” Kildee told Reuters in an interview this month. “We have got to make it a lot more painful than it is right now.”