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Getting Ahead: Migrant child labor

Posted May 18, 2023 9:04 AM
By Patricia Jones, Alliance Community Task Force: Creating Opportunity

Over the last three months we’ve seen several news stories about migrant child labor in the United States. What, exactly, is happening?

Last winter the Department of Homeland Security investigated the JBS Food Slaughterhouse and PSSI, Packers Sanitation Services, Inc. As many as 50 migrant children, some as young as 13, were employed cleaning the slaughterhouse at night, most in Grand Island. Yes, in Nebraska. PSSI argued that they were given fake identification with Social Security numbers that were verified by the federal government’s E-Verify system. Not their fault they were violating child labor laws.

The children who worked for PSSI attended school during the day and worked overnight at the JBS slaughterhouse. Conditions they faced included cleaning dangerous equipment, using strong cleaning chemicals that burned them, and navigating slick “kill floors”. They had to wear protective equipment from head to toe, including hard hats, face shields, goggles, aprons, gloves, boots, etc.

The United States currently has an unemployment rate of 3.4%, and Nebraska’s is 2.1%. This may sound great, but it has problems. Economists generally consider a healthy unemployment rate to be 4-5%. When the rate drops too low, it becomes difficult to hire people who will actually be productive employees. And a business’s current employees are more likely to move to a better, higher paying job.

What does this have to do with migrant children? Over the past two years, more than 250,000 migrant children have come alone to the United States. Most of these children are escaping dangerous situations in Central America or Venezuela. Some are sent here to earn money to send back to families living in deep poverty. Some are trying to find relatives who moved to the United States years ago.

The federal Department of Health and Human Services is required to house unaccompanied children until they can be placed with sponsors. Typically, these sponsors are family members who are vetted to see if they are good placements – aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins. However, because of the surge at the southern border, the government has relaxed sponsorship requirements.

Now the abuses begin. Relatives who are, shall we say, only loosely connected to children they’ve never met see an opportunity to have another income in their household. Businesses needing laborers appear to claim connections. Fake IDs abound, and dates of birth and Social Security numbers are falsified.

In February, the New York Times investigative reporters published some shocking stories, and other news outlets have followed up and verified their findings. Many of these migrant children, some as young as age 12, are working for some of the biggest corporations in the country, throughout the United States.

Children were working construction jobs. They ran saws, they roofed houses, they moved rocks. They were working assembly lines in factories at night. They made auto parts. They bagged cereal or dog food. They ran milking machines at dairies. They washed dishes at night. They washed sheets in hotel laundries. They operated sewing machines. They ran ovens in bakeries. They deboned chickens.

How are we reacting to this abuse of poor migrant children? Apparently corporate profits are more important than common human decency. Several states have introduced legislation to roll back these protections of our most vulnerable workers. Because we need the cheap labor.