In recent years, major U.S. corporations have assured ethical labor practices within their supply chains through private social compliance audits. However, a revealing investigation by The New York Times exposes that an $80 billion industry that hinges on these inspections overlooks an important variable: child labor.
“Missed” or ignored
Hannah Dreier of The Times exposes a troubling pattern from audits by several major firms. Auditors consistently missed child labor violations in 20 production facilities linked to renowned brands such as Skittles, Starburst, McDonald’s, and Gerber. Auditors’ findings were often limited by time and scope during inspections. An auditor would typically start their inspection in the morning and stay until midday, missing critical late shifts where child labor violations are rampant. Even if an auditor had stayed later in the day, they may not have been able to speak privately with a migrant child worker, who, in many cases, requires an interpreter, which auditing firms rarely provide.
Juanita Sanchez-Sevilla, a Spanish speaker who has been conducting audits since the 1990s said,
“You’re supposed to ask another worker to translate. But you’re trying to unearth something that people aren’t trying to yell from the rooftops.”
Without conducting face-to-face interviews, auditors depend on documentation. However, young individuals often given forged papers. For example, this past summer, a 16-year-old from Guatemala tragically lost his life while working at a Mississippi slaughterhouse that provides products to Chick-fil-A. Despite his actual age, the documents falsely indicated he was in his 30s.
Unaccompanied migrant children are arriving in the U.S. in unprecedented numbers, and are vulnerable to being placed in perilous jobs across the states that do not uphold labor laws. These children often use fake documents to evade scrutiny from auditors. In 2021, a study revealed that nearly half of 40,000 audits were based on illegitimate documents.
Joshua Callington, an experienced auditor, has highlighted the urgent need for unannounced nighttime inspections to uncover child labor. However, this proposal has largely been met with silence and resistance, suggesting that suppliers might be reluctant to acknowledge their wrongdoings.
“If audits are done correctly, the world would be a better place. Bettering the lives of workers is what these audits are supposed to be about. But more and more, each audit has begun to feel like a struggle between wanting the truth and trying to avoid conflict.”
Despite the industry’s vast resources and claims of thorough oversight, abusive child labor persists, concealed within complex supply chains. The loosening of child labor protections in several states, including Arkansas, Iowa, New Jersey, and New Hampshire, further exacerbates exploitative conditions.
It is time to put an end to child labor law rollbacks by sending a message to state representatives to enforce laws that prevent any employers from resorting to exploitative child labor.