Large corporations will often say they shouldn’t be held responsible for working conditions they do not know about or directly control. However, they undeniably have power and leverage over their contractors and suppliers and can set and control labor standards through their contracts.
If we really want to stop child labor abuses, responsibility must begin at the top of the supply chain.
Brand-name corporations have increasingly outsourced work to subcontractors and temporary staffing agencies to reduce costs and limit responsibility. If workers say that their labor rights are being violated, the corporation can point the finger at the staffing agency and plead ignorance–distancing itself from their exploitation, even as it profits from their work. In outsourcing work, all too often corporations also outsource responsibility.
Often, several layers of subcontracting separate the brand-name corporations from the workers who make their products. According to The Times report, General Mills, which owns Cheerios, contracts out to Hearthside Food Solutions, a corporation that makes and packages General Mills’ products. Hearthside in turn relies on temporary staffing agencies to hire and pay workers at its processing plants. In a statement, Hearthside said that it was committed to complying with laws governing worker protections and disputed the allegations about safety. However, the role of temporary staffing agencies in this child labor nightmare is well documented: They shield corporations from liability for labor violations in their supply chains.
This is just the latest example of big corporations evading responsibility for child labor violations. When Reuters revealed that children in Alabama were working at several factories supplying parts for Hyundai, the staffing agencies came under scrutiny, but Hyundai appears to be off the hook. Likewise, when over 100 children were found working with caustic chemicals cleaning dangerous equipment for some of the largest meat and poultry companies, the Department of Labor fined only the cleaning subcontractor. Tyson Foods and the other big corporations who engaged the subcontractors and whose facilities the children cleaned each night were barely mentioned. Without accountability at the top, there’s nothing to stop corporations from finding another low-bid contractor with similarly exploitative practices.
Big corporations have the power to ensure compliance with labor and employment laws among their labor contractors and prevent the exploitation of children within their supply chains. They can set minimum labor standards in their supply chains, regularly audit their subcontractors and suppliers to ensure compliance, and cease working with subcontractors and suppliers that violate minimum labor standards. A subcontractor will do whatever it takes to stay in the good graces of major brand names.
However, current laws and enforcement do not incentivize major brands to set minimum labor standards. Although corporations that outsource labor to staffing agencies are legally responsible as joint employers–which means they are jointly liable with the staffing agency for labor violations experienced by their outsourced workers—they are rarely held responsible in practice. Workers often do not know who is responsible, and the brand names can spend untold sums defending lawsuits if they are named at all.
Workers need enforcement agencies–the federal Department of Labor and state labor agencies–to prioritize child labor investigations and make clear that they will aggressively pursue joint employer liability against any corporations that outsource to subcontractors that use child labor.
Similarly, the Department of Labor must use its enforcement powers under the “hot goods” provision–a tool that gives it authority to get a court order halting the shipment of goods produced in violation of child labor laws. Stopping tainted goods from reaching consumers is a powerful way to ensure that corporations take responsibility for the goods and services they sell.
We also need laws that ensure large corporations with the power to eradicate child labor in their supply chains use that power. Major brands should be held strictly liable for egregious labor violations in their labor supply chains. They should be held responsible regardless of whether they knew about the violations. Strict liability will make corporations detect and root out exploitative working conditions among their contractors and suppliers, and eliminate the Dickensian conditions suffered by migrant children.
Solving this crisis will require systemic changes. Until the government holds big corporations and brand names accountable for their role in enabling the exploitation of children, we can expect to see more of it.
Laura Padin and Sally Dworak-Fisher are legal experts at the National Employment Law Project.