On Feb. 25, The New York Times published an expose on migrant children being exploited to work long hours in extreme conditions in Grand Rapids and other American cities. The article called out Hearthside Food Solutions in Kentwood for hiring immigrant children through a company that did not verify the ages of their staffers through Social Security numbers.
The story included the first-hand account of a 15 year-old high school student who migrated alone from Guatemala to get sponsored by an aunt she’d never met. Her aunt’s family was struggling financially so she began working to help support them.
Even though Hearthside claimed that all hires must be 18 or older, the girl was given a job in their factory. The article states the factory supervisors were sometimes aware of the false identification of their staff and reports of young-looking employees but did not act on this information.
Aside from hiring minors to work reportedly long hours, Hearthside also consistently failed to meet the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) standards, making it an unusually hazardous job.
“OSHA cited Hearthside Food Solutions, Inc. for one serious, one repeated and one willful violation for failing to use lockout/tagout procedures to control hazardous energy sources. The company also failed to test machine safety procedures periodically for effectiveness and develop adequate procedures to control hazardous energy sources,” stated a U.S Department of Labor press release from October 2021. OSHA cited the company after a worker suffered an amputation injury at its Romeoville facility.
The day the Times article released, Heathside published a media statement which claimed the company was unaware of child labor occuring at their facilities.
“We are appalled by today’s New York Times article alleging that the industry is employing underage individuals in unsafe conditions, and further suggesting some of these issues may be taking place at one of our locations. Our hearts break for the young people whose stories are documented in the article,” stated the press release.
The release also mentioned that the company would be enforcing stricter policies to ensure children no longer work in their facilities. The company claimed that going forward, it will only engage with reputable staffing companies and implement “an enhanced process” of confirming employees’ ages, which they clarified means simply checking government-issued IDs.
Since the Times article was published, Grand Rapids residents have been looking to government officials for solutions. Congresswoman Hillary Scholten shared her thoughts on the article as well as her plans to deal with the issues it raised.
“I was appalled that this was happening right in our (backyard), right in Grand Rapids,” Scholten said. “As a mother of children the same age as those kids in the article, you know it’s hard not to react with a lot of personal responsibility. I responded to this situation with the urgency that it demanded.”
Scholten explained that immediately upon reading the article, she called the White House and suggested they put together an interagency task force between Health and Human Services and The Department of Labor. Health and Human Services is a government agency that is responsible for ensuring the well-being of unaccompanied immigrant children, and the Department of Labor enforces child labor laws.
In a news release on Feb. 27, the Department of Labor announced the taskforce is being created. The release claims the collaboration will help with information sharing between the two agencies, so they can act quicker when an issue like Hearthside arises.
“I’m so proud to have been able to get such immediate results to protect these kids,” said Scholten. “We’re going to continue to put pressure on the administration to make sure this task force is effective, and that it’s doing what it was set up to do.”
Along with working to prevent this exploitation from continuing, Scholten acknowledged the looming penalties for the crimes Hearthside already committed.
“I know our state Attorney General has opened an investigation, the Michigan Department of Labor has opened an investigation, and they’re looking into it. Obviously it takes time to build a case and make sure the facts are documented, but even the facts that were reported in the New York Times exposee are pretty damning,” Scholten said.
This type of exploitation is not specific to Grand Rapids. In fact, the author of the New York Times article spoke to over 100 child migrant workers in 20 states. Because of the scope and severity of the problem, the White House is asking Congress to increase funding for the Department of Labor’s enforcement agencies as well as increase penalties for companies using child labor.
“So much of what we need to be doing has to be proactive right now,” said Scholten. “(Children) are so exceptionally vulnerable and so unlikely to speak out against authority, and that’s why we as the grownups need to take action to fight for them.”