The legislation, from Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) and Sens. Bob Casey (Pa.) and Patty Murray (Wash.), would ramp up fines for child labor violations and hold big corporations responsible for the actions of the smaller businesses they contract with.
The subcontracting provision is significant because the children working in name-brand meatpacking plants and other settings are often technically employed by outside companies, like cleaning contractors. Under current law, it is typically the subcontractor that’s hit with fines.
Murray said in a statement that she was disturbed by reports of migrant children getting maimed in the workplace and called for “real action at the federal level to crack down on illegal and exploitative child labor.”
“This is about protecting vulnerable children from exploitation and abuse—there’s no reason Congress shouldn’t be able to act,” she added.
The children working in name-brand meatpacking plants and other settings are often technically employed by outside companies.
The recent public concern around child labor stems largely from the investigative reporting of The New York Times’ Hannah Dreier. She published a series of stories documenting the dangerous work done by migrant children who left Latin American countries for the U.S. Many kids wound up performing hazardous duties in meatpacking plants, including cleaning heavy machinery.
A Labor Department official said earlier this year that the agency had seen a 50% increase in child labor violations since 2015. The cases came in two forms: children working more hours than were legally allowed for minors, or children performing hazardous tasks meant for adults, and sometimes getting injured.
“We are seeing children who are being employed where they never should be in the first place,” Jessica Looman, who runs the agency’s Wage and Hour Division, said in February.
A photo from a Labor Department court filing shows a Packers Sanitation Services employee working in a meatpacking plant.
In one highly publicized case, the Labor Department said it found that Packers Sanitation Services Inc. had employed more than 100 minors at meat processing facilities, where they handled hazardous chemicals and cleaned dangerous machinery. Kids as young as 13 allegedly worked in plants owned by meatpacking giants JBS and Cargill, among others.
Packers Sanitation Services agreed to pay $1.5 million in civil penalties to resolve the case. A spokesperson for Casey, the Pennsylvania Democrat who co-sponsored the new bill, confirmed that the legislation is meant to expose meatpacking companies to fines in such a situation, as opposed to just the cleaning contractor.
The bill would also raise civil fines for child labor from the current $11,000 to $151,380 for each child involved in a violation. Criminal penalties would increase from a maximum of $10,000 to $750,000 for child labor convictions, according to Democrats’ one-page summary of the proposal.
The legislation would also authorize the labor secretary to label goods that have been produced with child labor, and issue stop-work orders against companies caught violating the law.