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American Child Labor

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Lest you think child labor is something that only happens in other countries, it is a big part of life for way too many Americans.

Here in the Chicago suburb of Bensenville, and in places like it throughout the country, Guatemalan teenagers like Garcia spend their days in class learning English and algebra and chemistry. At night, while their classmates sleep, they work to pay debts to smugglers and sponsors, to contribute to rent and bills, to buy groceries and sneakers, and to send money home to the parents and siblings they left behind.

They are among the tens of thousands of young people who have come to this country over the past few years, some as unaccompanied minors, others alongside a parent, amid a spike in the number of Central American migrants seeking asylum in the U.S.

Around Urbana-Champaign, the home of the University of Illinois, school district officials say children and adolescents lay shingles, wash dishes, and paint off-campus university apartments. In New Bedford, Massachusetts, an indigenous Guatemalan labor leader has heard complaints from adult workers in the fish-packing industry who say they’re losing their jobs to 14-year-olds. In Ohio, teenagers work in dangerous chicken plants.

ProPublica interviewed 15 teenagers and young adults in Bensenville alone who said they work or have worked as minors inside more than two dozen factories, warehouses, and food processing facilities in the Chicago suburbs, usually through temporary staffing agencies, and nearly all in situations where federal and state child labor laws would explicitly prohibit their employment.

Though most of the teens interviewed for this story are now 18, they agreed to speak on the condition that they not be fully identified and that their employers not be named because they feared losing their jobs, harming their immigration cases, or facing criminal penalties.

Some began to work when they were just 13 or 14, packing the candy you find by the supermarket register, cutting the slabs of raw meat that end up in your freezer and baking, in industrial ovens, the pastries you eat with your coffee. Garcia, who is 18 now, was 15 when he got his first job at an automotive parts factory.

Like many adult workers, they often don’t even know the names of the factories where they work. They refer to them, in Spanish, by the product they make or pack or sort: “los dulces” (the candies), “los metales” (the metals), and “las mangueras” (the hoses).

To say the least, this is absolutely unacceptable. It happens because a lot of people really don’t care, at least not enough to do anything about it or make it any sort of priority. That includes: Republicans, conservatives, courts, liberals, labor unions, Democrats, and most of the left. Simply put, these issues are just not on our political radar screen. How many questions were asked about labor issues in the 2020 elections period, not to mention child labor? Almost none for the former and definitely none for the latter and that includes in those areas where we do see significant and known pockets of child labor. It’s terrible. It also only changes when we start paying as much attention to it as we do with whatever news of the day is coming out of the Trump administration.

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