(NewsNation) — Hundreds of American companies, from slaughterhouses to food-packing factories, are illegally employing children — some as young as 12 — according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In many cases, these children are unaccompanied migrants who’ve crossed the southern border.
“This is very widespread. It has been for quite some time,” said New England law professor Dina Haynes. “It’s in all 50 states. It’s in factories, agriculture, child, domestic, household, labor, construction, you name it. It’s there in your community.”
The number of children being employed illegally has been steadily growing, with a 69% increase since 2018. Last year, the U.S. Department of Labor found that 835 companies were employing about 3,800 children in violation of labor laws.
“At the end of the day, these kids are really doing this for the money,” said Jose Velasquez, a 21-year-old college student and former child laborer. “In my experience, I kind of felt … the pressure of so many other people relying on you, looking up to you, that just becomes its own thing. You just become an adult so fast.”
In some cases, the federal agency has found that children are being employed in hazardous working conditions, dealing with toxic chemicals and being made to work during overnight hours.
“Just in the last year, we’ve seen about a 26% increase in the number of kids who are working in those hazardous occupations,” said Jessica Looman, who is a principal deputy administrator in the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor. “We just need to make sure that nobody under 18 is working in that type of environment.”
The Labor Department says now it’s ramping up its efforts to clamp down on what some are calling the invisible workforce.
“We are finding children in manufacturing, in slaughterhouses, in meat-processing facilities, and those are just dangerous conditions,” said Looman. “Those are dangerous conditions for adults, but they’re prohibitively dangerous conditions for work for children who are working in the United States.”
An investigation by the agency found that one of the nation’s largest food sanitation companies, Packers Sanitation Services Inc., had illegally employed at least 102 teens between the ages of 13 and 17.
The investigation found that the teens were using “caustic chemicals to clean razor-sharp saws, other high-risk equipment at 13 meat processing facilities in 8 states.” At least three of those teens were injured on the job. Last month, the company paid $1.5 million in penalties.
Meanwhile, the Labor Department has opened an investigation into Michigan-based Hearthside Food Solutions, a major U.S. food contractor, for employing underage workers and allegedly violating child labor laws. The allegations against the company came to light last month in an investigation by the New York Times and the company has since released a statement announcing it had “engaged” a third-party law firm to review its employment practices.
“It is our responsibility to ensure that children are not employed in workplaces that are dangerous or doing the type of work,” Looman said.
Some say more young people have been pulled into the workforce due to post-COVID labor shortages, but Haynes feels the country has simply turned a blind eye to the invisible workforce largely made up of migrant children.
“The exploitation of these children is happening. They’re in factories working because companies have been incentivized to hire vulnerable people who are least likely to report the abuse taking place in the factory,” Haynes said. “We as Americans need to come to terms with the fact that we have incentivized companies who hire child migrant workers who are not visible and can be easily exploited,” she added.
NewsNation’s Tulsi Kamath contributed to this article.