The call from congressional lawmakers comes amid a surge in child labor violations—and as Republican state lawmakers seek to roll back over a century of child labor protections.
A group of 33 Democratic lawmakers on Friday implored the U.S. Labor Department “to take immediate action to rid Hyundai’s supply chain of child labor and hold those responsible to the fullest extent of the law” after a Reuters investigation revealed that dozens of kids as young as 12 years old—most of them Central American migrants—were working in Southeastern factories supplying the Korean auto giant.
Last July, Reuters began investigating allegations of children working on the factory floor at Hyundai subsidiary SMART Alabama LLC’s metal stamping plant in Luverne after a 13-year-old Guatemalan girl who worked there temporarily went missing. Reporters Joshua Schneyer, Mica Rosenberg, and Kristina Cooke reported that children, the youngest of whom were 12 years old, worked at the plant, which supplies parts for vehicles manufactured at Hyundai’s flagship U.S. factory in Montgomery.
Reuters subsequently found dozens of children working in at least four major suppliers to Kia and Hyundai—its parent company—in Alabama and Georgia. After a Labor Department probe found that one of the suppliers, SL Alabama LLC, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by engaging in “oppressive child labor,” the agency obtained a federal court order to stop the firm from illegally employing 13-, 14,- and 15-year-old workers.
“New reports allege additional automotive parts suppliers for Hyundai, mainly in Alabama, are also suspected of child labor violations,” the 33 congressional Democrats wrote in a letter to U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh led by Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.) decrying the “abhorrent” crimes.
“Many of these children are immigrants recruited from Central America, working under fake names in dangerous conditions in manufacturing plants, some driving forklifts and operating welding equipment, and receiving serious workplace injuries,” the lawmakers wrote.
The letter continued:
According to reports, children are actively recruited from Central America and employed through third-party staffing agencies in an attempt to cover up these disturbing activities [and] when adult workers in the plants tried to raise concerns about children working there, they were ignored. This is shocking, disturbing, and has no place in the U.S.
Earlier this year, Hyundai publicly committed to severing ties with its suppliers in its U.S. supply chain that were found to use child labor. We are concerned that Hyundai, at DOL’s suggestion, reversed course on this commitment and will not cut ties with its Alabama suppliers that use child labor. Clearly, there is a systemic effort within the Hyundai supply chain to recruit child labor from abroad, undermining workers in other parts of the U.S. auto industry. And it must be addressed immediately.
Hyundai said in a statement that the company “agrees that child labor is entirely unacceptable,” but that it was “disappointed” the lawmakers’ letter did not mention the “comprehensive actions we have taken in collaboration with the Department of Labor to address the allegations of underage workers at certain suppliers.”
Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala), who did not sign the letter, told Reuters earlier this week that she has repeatedly discussed the child labor issue with Hyundai officials, and that she has “made clear that the use of child labor is abhorrent and unacceptable, and that there must be accountability.”
Last year, attorneys representing Lea Reis, a California woman, filed a class-action lawsuit against Hyundai on behalf of Hyundai owners and lessees “seeking to stop and prevent” the company’s “illegal use of child labor.”
SMART Alabama LLC is also the target of a class-action lawsuit alleging the company “cheated the United States immigration system” to employ adult Mexican immigrants, who worked “horrendously long hours” for a fraction of the pay of U.S. workers.
The lawmakers’ letter comes as Republican-led state legislatures work to roll back child labor protections, even as the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division reported a 37% surge in child labor violations in 2022. These included 688 minors found to be working in hazardous occupations.
In addition to Hyundai and Kia, child labor violations have recently been exposed at major companies in the U.S. including Brazilian meatpacking giant JBS, Chipotle, Dunkin’ Donuts, and McDonalds, as well as at a host of smaller businesses.
Yet, in Iowa—to name but one example—Republican state lawmakers want to change child labor laws so teens as young as 14 could work in previously prohibited and dangerous jobs including mining, logging, and animal slaughtering.
“It’s just crazy to me that we are re-litigating a lot of things that seem to have been settled 100, 120, or 140 years ago,” Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa AFL-CIO—which opposes the GOP bill—told The Guardian.
“All of these protections have been put in place for a reason,” Wishman added. “Child labor law is there to make sure that kids are working in age-appropriate work activities or occupations that are appropriate for their age. We think this is a rewrite of our child labor laws in Iowa that [is] going way, way, way too far and has the potential to put kids in dangerous situations.”
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