The expanding scourge of child exploitation in the U.S. workforce 


April 26, 2024

Child labor violations in the U.S. workforce are sharply on the rise, in part because of some employers seeking to pay workers less in a tight labor market, an increasing number of states rolling back laws protecting children, and an industry-wide effort to eliminate such protections on both the state and federal level. 

Earlier this month, the subject of child exploitation surfaced at a hearing on the Department of Labor’s proposed budget before the House Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. 

But before we get to the hearing, some background. 

Last year, the Department of Labor reported an 88 percent increase in overall child labor violations between 2019 and 2023. 

A report issued by the Economic Policy Institute in March 2023 (and updated in December) found that the number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws increased 37 percent over the previous year and at least 10 states introduced or passed laws rolling back child labor protections during the previous two years. 

The report describes a “coordinated multi-industry push to expand employer access to low-wage labor and weaken state child labor laws in ways that contradict federal protections, in pursuit of longer-term industry-backed goals to rewrite federal child labor laws and other protections for the whole country.” 

It notes, “Children of families in poverty, and especially Black, Brown, and immigrant youth, stand to suffer the most harm from such changes.” 

The EPI report included some of the most egregious examples of child exploitation uncovered by the Department of Labor. 

For example, in February 2023, the department released the result of an investigation into Packers Sanitation Services, which provided more than 100 child workers aged 13 to 17 to meatpacking facilities operated by JBS, Cargill, Tyson, and other companies. 

“These children worked illegally on overnight shifts cleaning razor-sharp saws and other high-risk equipment on slaughterhouse kill floors,” the report stated. “At least three of them suffered injuries, including burns from caustic cleaning chemicals. The Department of Homeland Security has announced a parallel investigation into whether these young workers, many of whom may be unaccompanied migrant children, were connected to illegal employment by traffickers who profited from their labor.” 

Testifying before the subcommittee that was analyzing the Department of Labor’s funding request for FY 2025, which begins October 1, Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su said the department is seeking an additional $7.5 million to hire 50 additional enforcement staff in the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) to “protect our country’s most vulnerable workers and combat exploitative child labor.” 

In addition, the department is seeking $3.8 million for the Office of the Solicitor of Labor (SOL) for legal services to combat illegal child labor, ensuring that WHD’s work has the teeth of legal enforcement. 

“The Department is committed to committed to combating all forms of illegal child labor because we cannot build our economy on the backs of children,” Su said. 

Finally, Su said, the department is seeking an additional $10.7 million for SOL “to help mitigate the effects of over a decade of near-flat funding and the depletion of supplemental appropriated funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.” 

Without the additional resources, Su said, SOL will have to “significantly reduce its workforce, triggering a reduction in cases litigated, reducing pre-litigation advice and assistance, and lessening support for the worker protection agencies in developing and pursuing litigation-worthy cases.” 

In responding to Su (you can watch the video here), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who serves as Ranking Member (the highest-ranking Democrat) on the subcommittee, praised the Acting Secretary and the Biden Administration for their efforts to fight child exploitation in the workplace. She noted that in 2023, the Department of Labor found 955 violations of child labor laws involving almost 5,800 children nationwide. 

“Just last month you cracked down on a parts supplier for John Deere that relied on children as young as 14 to conduct dangerous work,” DeLauro said. “The Department’s work is outstanding and we need much more of it, which is why I believe the Wage and Hour Division and the Solicitor need far more resources to continue going after companies that exploit vulnerable children.” 

DeLauro asked Su how providing additional resources for WHD and SOL would expand the department’s ability to combat illegal child labor. 

“We are seeing really unconscionable cases of child labor,” Su responded. “We are seeing 13-year-olds working the night shift on the kill floor of meatpacking plants working with toxic chemicals doing cleaning. We see young people working as sawmill operators doing roofing work that is understandably illegal for children to work in. We’re seeing really terrible cases in which children are being put in harm’s way.” 

Su said the department’s proposed $7.5 million increase for the Wage and Hour Division would allow the department to put more “boots on the ground” by way of investigators. 

“These cases often usually involve employers who don’t want to be discovered,” she said. “They don’t want people to know what is happening. So it requires us to be innovative, it requires us to be smart, to ask the right questions. Oftentimes, this happens because the location where the work is being done is not the direct hirer of the children – they often hire through a contractor, which you know creates other vulnerabilities and so our investigations involve understanding who’s responsible, what the right penalties should be, which include using tools uh that Congress has given us.” 

DeLauro responded: 

“I just will say that we need to give you the resources to crack down on companies that exploit children. Let’s not mince words on my part — we need to shut companies down that exploit child labor and we need to send those responsible to prison.” 

The Coalition on Human Needs has joined its partners in recruiting signatures for a letter to Congress that requests increased funding for the Department of Labor, as well as for the Departments of Health and Human Services and Education. Your local, state, or national group can sign the letter here. The deadline for signing is Friday, May 3. 

Child labor violations
Department of Labor