U.S. Senate bill aims to bar child labor violators from some federal contracts

U.S. Senate bill aims to bar child labor violators from some federal contracts

U.S. Senate bill aims to bar child labor violators from some federal contracts

Image: U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) speaks about border policy, at the Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 26, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

April 25 (Reuters) – U.S. Democratic Senator Cory Booker will introduce legislation Tuesday that aims to deter child labor at meatpacking plants by barring some offending companies from important government contracts, the latest response to a rise in underage labor in dangerous U.S. industries.

The bill Booker’s office shared with Reuters, called the Child Labor Exploitation and Accountability Act, would prevent companies that commit “serious, repeated, or pervasive” labor law violations from contracting with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for up to five years.

The USDA is a major buyer of meat and other foods for the National School Lunch Program and other government programs.

February 2022 Reuters story exposed child labor at Alabama chicken plants, revealing how unaccompanied Central American migrants in debt to human smugglers were working grueling factory shifts. Later, in November, the Labor Department filed a complaint against cleaning company Packers Sanitation Services Inc., (PSSI) for employing dozens of kids on overnight shifts at meat processing plants around the country, some who suffered chemical burns and other injuries.

“Reuters’ reporting on child labor in chicken plants drew much-needed attention to the widespread labor violations in the food industry,” Booker said in an emailed statement. “We must hold companies accountable for violating labor laws and their role in exploiting vulnerable children and workers to help drive record high profits.”

If passed, the bill would require companies competing for USDA contracts to disclose any labor and worker safety infractions, including violations by their subcontractors, going back three years. It would also require the U.S. Secretary of Labor to compile an annual list of serious and repeat violators who would be ineligible for USDA contracts.

The Senate bill is co-led by Democratic Senator Peter Welch of Vermont. A companion bill in the House of Representatives is led by Representative Greg Casar of Texas, also a Democrat.

The proposed legislation is the latest in a series of recent congressional actions to address troubling findings of underage migrant labor in U.S. factories, where it’s illegal and dangerous for them to work.

It comes after another Democrat-led Senate bill that would sharply increase civil fines and penalties for employers that violate child labor laws, and a similar bipartisan measure introduced in the House of Representatives.

Reuters reporting last year also found migrant children, some as young as 12, were manufacturing car parts at suppliers to Korean auto giants Hyundai(005380.KS) and Kia (000270.KS). This year, the New York Times and other media outlets have reported on migrant child labor in various states.

Reuters found the practice often relies on subcontractors, such as temporary staffing agencies, that big employers enlist to recruit plant workers.

The Labor Department said earlier this year that it has seen a nearly 70% increase in child labor violations since 2018, including in hazardous occupations.

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack sent a letter to the largest U.S. meat and chicken processing companies, urging them to examine their supply chains for evidence of child labor.

Reporting by Kristina Cooke in in San Francisco, Mica Rosenberg and Joshua Schneyer in New York; Editing by Aurora Ellis