U.S. Senator Cory Booker introduced the Child Labor Exploitation and Accountability Act on Tuesday, which aims to deter child labor at meatpacking plants. The bill would prevent companies that commit “serious, repeated, or pervasive” labor law violations from contracting with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for up to five years.
This follows recent investigations that uncovered unaccompanied migrant children working in exploitative conditions across the U.S. and trafficking indicators being ignored.
The USDA is a major buyer of meat and other foods for the National School Lunch Program and other government programs.
Child labor is still a challenge
Child labor remains a pervasive problem in the U.S. In February 2022, Reuters exposed child labor at Alabama chicken plants, revealing how unaccompanied Central American migrants in debt to human smugglers were working grueling factory shifts.
In November 2022, the Department of Labor filed a complaint against Packers Sanitation Services Inc for employing dozens of kids on overnight shifts at meat processing plants around the country. Some suffered chemical burns and injuries.
Reuters reporting last year also found migrant children, as young as 12, were manufacturing car parts for Hyundai and Kia. Additional reporting by the New York Times and other outlets have reported on migrant child labor in various states.
Bill seeks to address this challenge
Booker said, “We must hold companies accountable for violating labor laws and their role in exploiting vulnerable children and workers to help drive record high profits.”
The proposed legislation would require companies competing for USDA contracts to disclose any labor or worker safety infractions, including violations by subcontractors, going back three years. It also requires the US Secretary of Labor to compile an annual list of serious and repeat violators who would be ineligible for USDA contracts.
The bill is co-led by Senator Peter Welch of Vermont, and a companion bell in the House of Representatives is led by Representative Greg Casar.
This is the latest in a series of recent Congressional actions to address troubling findings of underage migrant labor in US factories. Reuters found the practice often relies on subcontractors, such as temporary staffing agencies, that big employers enlist to recruit plant workers.
The Labor Department has said earlier this year that it has seen a nearly 70% increase in child labor violations since 2018, including in hazardous occupations. US Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack sent a letter to the largest US meat and chicken processing companies earlier this month urging them to examine their supply chains for evidence of child labor.