Lawmakers Demand Investigation of Illegal Child Labor in Grand Rapids 

US Rep. Hillary Scholten (D-Grand Rapids) testifies in the US House about child labor exploitation that was recently revealed by the New York Times.

By Kyle Kaminski

March 3, 2023

MICHIGAN—Democratic lawmakers from Michigan are calling for an investigation after a recent New York Times article exposed the exploitation of migrant child workers—including a number of children who are reportedly working inside at least three factories in the Grand Rapids area.

The Times reportedly spoke with more than 100 migrant child workers in 20 states (including Michigan) who came to the United States without their parents, and landed in some of the most exhausting jobs in the country—despite child labor laws that are supposed to prevent the practice.

What did the report reveal?

The Times found that children in the Grand Rapids area were being employed by suppliers who make auto parts used by Ford and General Motors. The Times also identified another employer: Hearthside, which makes and packages food for companies like Frito-Lay and General Mills.

The report described working in these factories as some of the “most punishing jobs in the country,” with long hours and unsafe working conditions.

The workers are part of a “new economy of exploitation,” the Times reported, noting that similar “shadow work forces” also extend across industries in every state, flouting child labor laws that have been in place for nearly a century through a “chain of willful ignorance,” where companies have either botched—or ignored—employment screenings designed to prevent child labor.

How did lawmakers respond?

Three days after the Times story was published, US Rep. Hillary Scholten (D-Grand Rapids) addressed the US House to condemn child labor practices and ask that President Joe Biden’s administration establish an inter-agency task force to immediately address the problem.

“This is a multi-level, multi-system failure that created the shadows where these children can be exploited, and we need a multi-level, multi-system approach to fix it,” Scholten said. “We as a Congress must also act. This means first and foremost holding the companies accountable with every tool at our disposal. It also means conducting oversight over the agencies responsible for enforcing these laws, and ensuring they have the resources they need to protect these kids.”

WATCH: Click here to watch a clip of Scholten’s testimony.

The Biden administration has since answered the call, announcing a multi-agency response to address the exploitation—not just by targeting the factories and suppliers that illegally employ children, but also the larger companies (like Ford) that may have child labor supporting their supply chains.

Migrant children often use false identification and find jobs through staffing agencies that do not verify their Social Security numbers, the Times reports. And companies have escaped fines in the past by shifting blame to other agencies or subcontractors when violations are discovered. 

The Department of Labor intends to crack down on these practices.

The department will also reportedly explore using a “hot goods” legal provision that allows it to stop the interstate transport of goods when child labor has been found in the supply chain.

State lawmakers from Kent County, home to three of the factories, are also demanding answers.

“It is unacceptable and immoral that some of our most vulnerable—our children—are being exploited for commercial gain, forced to choose between an education and indentured servitude,” said state Rep. John Fitzgerald (D-Wyoming). “Any company that knowingly profits from illegal child labor practices must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”

State Rep. Phil Skaggs (D-East Grand Rapids) said local Democratic state representatives have also been in contact with both state and federal agencies since the report was published—and the work is underway to review how the government can better protect children in Michigan.

“We are all dedicated to continuing to monitor the situation and work to implement reforms to bring an end to exploitative child labor practices in Michigan,” Skaggs said in a recent press release. “This has been a system-wide failure and will take systemic solutions.”

State Rep. Kristian Grant (D-Grand Rapids) said she has also been working closely with local school districts to connect students to resources designed to keep them safe from exploitative work practices. State Rep. Carol Glanville (D-Walker) is also closely monitoring the situation.

“I’ve worked with immigrant and refugee children and families throughout my career. The weight these kids carry, separated from home and thrust into adult responsibilities at such a young age, is unimaginable. It breaks my heart to see them further victimized. We must do better,” she said.

In a statement, the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity has also pledged to take the allegations raised in the Times report seriously, noting that an investigation is already underway in partnership with other state agencies and federal partners. 

Officials have urged Michiganders to report labor violations at 855-464-9243, or via email at [email protected]

Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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