Faced with child labor in the US, companies are moving to crack down

Many major U.S. companies — including some of the nation’s biggest consumer brands — say they are taking steps to eliminate child labor in their domestic supply chains amid revelations that children are working throughout U.S. manufacturing and food production.

As hundreds of thousands of migrant children have crossed the southern border without their parents since 2021, a growing number have ended up in dangerous, illegal jobs in every state, including factories, slaughterhouses and industrial dairy farms, The New York Times reported in a series of articles.

Working to exhaustion, children were crushed by construction equipment, dragged into industrial machinery and fell to their deaths from rooftops.

Now, McDonald’s says it is requiring private inspectors to inspect night shifts at slaughterhouses that provide some of its meat, where children as young as 13 have been cleaning heavy machinery. Suppliers for the Ford Motor Company must now carefully inspect the faces of employees when they arrive at work. Costco orders more audits with Spanish-speaking inspectors.

Corporations have relied on private auditors to check their suppliers for safety and labor problems, but those inspectors have repeatedly missed violations of child labor laws, The Times reported in December. The inspectors left the factories in the afternoon, although children are usually hired to work at night. They reviewed the paperwork to verify age, but children tend to submit false documents. And they focused on workers hired directly by factories, although children are often brought in by outside employment agencies or contractors.

Along with McDonald’s and Costco, Starbucks, Whole Foods and PepsiCo are reviewing the types of audits they require of their suppliers. The changes include improving reviews of night shifts and shifts run by external contractors, such as cleaning companies, and moving away from announcing audits in advance.

“We have been actively developing our focus on the risk of migrant child labor in the country,” Whole Foods said in a statement.

Spanish-speaking auditors said they were courted by recruiters as firms raced to fill staff.

“Investigations by the US Department of Labor and the New York Times into child labor in US companies have shown that the United States is not a low-risk country for human rights risk for brands and retailers,” said a recent job listing by auditing firm Arche. Advisors. “We cannot complete all the work requested in the US.”

The company’s chief executive, Greg Gardner, said in an interview that his company has seen a nearly 50 percent increase in its domestic audit business, including requests to specifically look for child labor. “We’re doing a kind of audit that we’ve never done before,” he said. “This is the biggest change I’ve seen in 29 years.”

After The Times found children working for a Ford supplier in Michigan, the automaker said it was increasing audits and requiring thousands of manufacturers to begin screening workers more closely, even after they’re hired. Security guards will check workers before each shift to make sure their faces match their ID cards. Bob Holycross, the company’s chief sustainability officer, said that while Ford had not found child labor itself, it had “strengthened our supplier code of conduct globally based on lessons learned”.

Suppliers also add safeguards.

The North West Dairy Association said it is hiring auditors to interview night shift workers on about 300 dairy farms. Children operated industrial milking machines on some of these farms in violation of labor laws and were sometimes seriously injured, according to The Times. As a major producer, the association supplies milk to brands including Nestlé, Costco’s Kirkland and Safeway’s house brand Lucerne through its marketing arm, Darigold.

Smithfield Foods, the nation’s largest pork producer, said it would annually bring in auditors to audit night shifts at 41 slaughterhouses and processing plants. The company has also posted signs in Spanish and other languages ​​around its facilities highlighting the aging conditions.

Tyson Foods said it added unannounced audits for sanitation shifts and instructed security guards to watch out for young faces. However, some shareholders did by pressing for more powerful action.

Perdue Farms, where a 14-year-old’s arm was amputated while working for a slaughterhouse cleaning company in Virginia, said it has added age verification for contractors. After The Times reported last year that children hired by an outside employment agency were working on Cheerios and other household products for contract manufacturer Hearthside Food Solutions, the company said it began requiring workers to prove their age with photo identification. was issued by the government.

Packers Sanitation Services, which last year paid a $1.5 million fine from the U.S. Department of Labor for sending children to clean slaughterhouses, went even further. Hiring managers are told to reject job applicants if they look too young to match the age on their documents, even if they pass all other types of screening.

Some companies choose to hire night shift workers directly, rather than using contractors, to avoid potential violations. That includes global meat producer JBS, where high school students brought in by Packers Sanitation suffered chemical burns. This work will now be performed in-house by union workers.

A December report by the Times focused on deficiencies in audits conducted by UL Solutions, one of the nation’s largest firms that inspect workplaces for violations of the law as part of a so-called social audit. The company is planning initial public offering, with a target valuation of $5 billion. UL this year explored selling its social audit business ahead of a public offering, according to three people familiar with the discussions. UL Solutions declined to comment.

Auditors expect child labor to be a major focus for corporations this year. In January, Amazon convened companies including Target, Disney and PepsiCo to discuss ways to eliminate child labor in US supply chains. Another summit, this one sponsored by Walmart and focusing on improving social audits, is planned for March.

The non-profit groups Verité and AIM-Progress, which promote responsible labor practices, retrained 600 US suppliers and employment agencies. The initiative is funded by 12 corporations, including some companies The Times found benefited from migrant child labor: McDonald’s; General Mills; snack giant Mondelez, which owns Oreo and dozens of other products; Cheez-It’s owner, Kellanova; and Unilever, the company behind Ben & Jerry’s. The new guidelines direct providers to ensure that any children who find themselves on the job are given social services, rather than simply dismissed.

“They should also look at what they’re paying people,” said Verite CEO Sean MacDonald, “and why they’re having trouble finding people other than kids who are willing to take on this work.”

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