Following reports of migrant children being used for illegal labor, two Democratic senators have sent letters to the CEOs of 27 major companies, including Fruit of the Loom, J.Crew Group, Target and Walmart, to demand immediate action over their alleged complicity in the exploitation.
“Migrant children have been working at your facilities in hazardous conditions, engaged in work that is not suitable for their age group, and working hours well beyond what is permitted by law,” wrote John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Alex Padilla of California, citing recent stories in NBC News and the New York Times, along with investigations from the Department of Labor. Since 2018, the number of children unlawfully employed by companies in the United States has spiked by nearly 70 percent, the agency said in February.
Hickenlooper and Padilla, as chairs of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety and Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety, expressed a “deep concern” about the “unsafe conditions” and “horrific trauma” that many unaccompanied children have reportedly experienced after making a “perilous journey” across the border. They pressed implicated companies to “closely examine” their own child labor practices to “avoid putting more children in harm’s way.”
Federal law is clear, the lawmakers noted, that children under the age of 18 cannot be subjected to “oppressive child labor,” meaning employment in an occupation that is “particularly hazardous or detrimental to their health or well-being” as defined by the Department of Labor. Furthermore, they can only work three hours a day on school days and a total of 18 hours each week between 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The New York Times story, which was published in February, described migrant children making Fruit of the Loom socks in Alabama and sewing “Made in America” tags into J. Crew shirts in Los Angeles. They were also found baking dinner rolls at Target and Walmart.
Hickenlooper and Padilla encouraged the companies to carefully examine their hiring procedures, workplace safety and compliance with wage and hour laws as they apply to minors, as well as train—and retrain, if necessary—staff on federal and state child labor laws to “ensure that children are not being placed in harm’s way.”
They also asked the letter’s recipients to answer, by April 26, a list of questions that will help them determine if the compliance actions and auditing processes the companies have taken are sufficient, if migrants in those supply chains are aware of their workplace rights, and if school districts where plants are located are being engaged in the coordination of allowable hours.
J.Crew said that it has received the letter and intends to respond to it in a “timely fashion” to share its work around the issue.
“We are committed to sourcing products in an ethical, responsible, and legal manner, and seek to comply with all applicable laws that impact human rights wherever we do business,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “To that end, we have a vigorous vendor compliance program and regularly audit our business partners to ensure our standards are being met. If they are not, we take immediate action.”
Fruit of the Loom did not respond to a request for comment, though it said in an online statement in February that it terminated the offending supplier’s contract last year and has been transitioning to a new licensing partner for more than six months, or “well before” the New York Times article.
“We take allegations of child labor very seriously and we support the processes to uphold human and labor rights. Fruit of the Loom, Inc. and its brands maintain a zero-tolerance policy for any practices of child labor, as reflected in our code of conduct,” the casual and underwear purveyor said, adding that it will embark on a review of all its current U.S. facilities, where owned or those of a supplier or licensee, to ensure no other violations are occurring.
Target and Walmart also did not respond to emails requesting comment.
Hickenlooper and Padilla aren’t the only ones on Capitol Hill sounding the alarm on domestic child labor.
Last month, Congressman Dan Kildee, a Democrat for Michigan, urged the Biden administration, including the Department of Labor and Health and Human Services, to take stronger enforcement actions against anyone who violates child labor laws in the United States.
“Our children are our future, and we must be doing everything we can to protect them,” he wrote in a letter to the Department of Labor, which was co-signed by more than 60 members of Congress. “We are concerned with new investigative reporting alleging migrant children are illegally working in factories across the United States for major corporations in the automotive, processed food and textile industries. This is unacceptable and must end immediately. Children should be in school, not working in dangerous factory jobs.”