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Ranking Member Cassidy Slams Biden Administration’s Failure to Address Rising Child Labor Exploitation, Demands Answers

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-LA), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, slammed the Biden administration’s failure to address the unprecedented rise in the exploitation of children for cheap labor.

In 2023, the Department of Labor (DOL) found 5,792 minors working in violation of federal labor laws—an 88 percent increase since 2019 and a 50 percent increase since 2022. This spike in exploitative child labor comes at a time when a historic number of unaccompanied children—nearly 400,000 since 2021—are entering the United States. There have been numerous reports of these children engaging in extremely dangerous, illegal labor that has led to serious injuries, including the tragic death of one child who was pulled into a meat-processing machine.

Alarming reports indicate that DOL repeatedly ignored warnings of child labor violations and even downplayed the rise of child exploitation to the White House and other administration officials. Additional reports found severe operational issues hampered DOL’s response to child labor violations, stating “[DOL] inspectors in a dozen states said their understaffed offices could barely respond to complaints, much less open original investigations.” Last August, the DOL Office of Inspector General announced it would begin an investigation to determine whether the efforts of DOL’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) to curtail child labor exploitation have been sufficient. 

“It’s alarming that, while these children worked in unsafe conditions, the Department of Labor (DOL) and other federal agencies either missed or ignored signs of their exploitation until it was far too late,” wrote Dr. Cassidy. “These injuries, and all other mental, emotional, and physical harms caused to children because of unconscionable working conditions are unacceptable. So too is DOL’s lack of response.”

“This years-long increase in unaccompanied migrant children crossing the southern border under the Biden administration, and the negative incentive for these children to expose themselves to dangerous working conditions is an intolerable tragedy for which we must find an immediate and lasting solution,” continued Dr. Cassidy. “It is clear that the enforcement actions taken so far against violators have not slowed this upward trend in exploitative child labor.”

Additionally, many unaccompanied children are coerced into dangerous work by adult sponsors who take custody of children from the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Under the Biden administration, ORR has dramatically weakened its oversight of unaccompanied children, putting them at risk of exploitation. In a 2022 report from HHS’ Office of Inspector General (OIG), ORR staff admitted that the loosened vetting requirements “have weakened ORR’s ability to vet sponsors and protect children from risks such as trafficking and exploitation.” This comes as ORR recently released a proposed rule codifying these failed policies as official agency regulations.

In a separate report released earlier this year, the HHS OIG discovered numerous instances of ORR officials failing to comply with its own vetting requirements for sponsors. For example, it found that ORR failed to conduct required background checks on sponsors in 16 percent of cases before the sponsors took custody of these children.

“ORR is responsible for protecting children from ‘smugglers, traffickers, or others who might seek to victimize or otherwise engage the child in criminal, harmful or exploitative activity,’ which includes working dangerous jobs in exploitative conditions,” wrote Dr. Cassidy. “These recent reports, however, expose the Biden administration’s failure to reform ORR’s sponsor vetting and child placement procedures and its inability to coordinate with other federal agencies to protect unaccompanied children.”

Cassidy is demanding answers from WHD and ORR on how they will reform current policies and practices to ensure unaccompanied children are protected from exploitation. Cassidy is also calling on both agencies to provide information on how they will better coordinate as part of the new interagency task force to address the rise in child labor violations.

Last year, Cassidy launched an investigation into the rising rate of child labor violations following reports that Packers Sanitation Services, Inc. (PSSI) had employed more than 102 children, including unaccompanied migrants, as young as 13 years old in hazardous conditions. This past January, Cassidy requested information from several major meat producers and chemical companies that have been the subject of DOL investigations for engaging in illegal child labor practices.

Read the letter to WHD here and ORR here.


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