McDonald’s, Costco and Other Companies Crack Down on Child Labor in the U.S.

McDonald’s, Costco and Other Companies Crack Down on Child Labor in the U.S.

  • Post category:USA
McDonald’s, Costco and Other Companies Crack Down on Child Labor in the U.S.

Many major U.S. companies — including some of the country’s biggest consumer brands — say they are taking steps to eliminate child labor in their domestic supply chains amid revelations that children are working throughout American manufacturing and food production.

As hundreds of thousands of migrant children have crossed the southern border without their parents since 2021, growing numbers have ended up in dangerous, illegal jobs in every state, including in factories, slaughterhouses and industrial dairy farms, The New York Times has reported in a series of articles.

Working to exhaustion, children have been crushed by construction equipment, gotten yanked into industrial machinery and fallen to their deaths from rooftops.

Now, McDonald’s says it is requiring private inspectors to review overnight shifts at slaughterhouses that provide some of its meat, where children as young as 13 were cleaning heavy machinery. Suppliers for Ford Motor Company must now scrutinize the faces of employees when they arrive for work. Costco is commissioning more audits with Spanish-speaking inspectors.

Corporations have relied on private auditors to check for safety and labor problems at their suppliers, but those inspectors repeatedly failed to spot ongoing child labor violations, The Times reported in December. Auditors left factories in the afternoon, even though children are most often hired to work at night. They examined paperwork to check ages, but children tend to submit fake documents. And they focused on workers hired directly by plants, although children are often brought in by outside staffing agencies or contractors.

Along with McDonald’s and Costco, Starbucks, Whole Foods and PepsiCo are revising the kinds of audits they require at their suppliers. The changes include enhancing reviews of night shifts and shifts run by outside contractors, such as cleaning companies, and moving away from announcing audits in advance.

“We have been actively evolving our focus on the risk of migrant child labor domestically,” Whole Foods said in a statement.

Spanish-speaking auditors said recruiters were courting them as firms raced to staff up.

United States Department of Labor and New York Times investigations into child labor at US businesses have shown that the United States is not a low-risk country for human rights risk for brands and retailers,” read a recent job listing from the auditing firm Arche Advisors. “In the US we cannot complete all of the work requested.”

The firm’s chief executive, Greg Gardner, said in an interview that his company had seen an increase of almost 50 percent in its domestic audit business, including requests to look specifically for child labor. “We’re doing a kind of audit we were never doing before,” he said. “This is the biggest change I’ve seen in 29 years.”

After The Times found children working for a Ford supplier in Michigan, the automaker said it was increasing audits and requiring that thousands of manufacturers begin looking over workers more carefully, even after they are hired. Security guards will inspect workers before every shift to ensure that their faces match their identification cards. Bob Holycross, the company’s chief sustainability officer, said that while Ford had not itself found child labor, it had “strengthened our supplier code of conduct globally based on lessons learned.”

Suppliers are also adding safeguards.

The Northwest Dairy Association said it was hiring auditors to interview night-shift workers at some 300 dairy farms. Children were operating industrial milking machines on some of these farms in violation of labor laws, and were sometimes seriously injured, The Times found. A major producer, the association provides milk for brands including Nestlé, Costco’s Kirkland label and Safeway’s house brand Lucerne through its marketing arm, Darigold.

Smithfield Foods, the country’s largest pork producer, said it would bring in auditors annually to check the night shifts at 41 slaughterhouses and processing plants. The company has also posted signs in Spanish and other languages around its plants emphasizing age requirements.

Tyson Foods said it had added unannounced audits for sanitation shifts, and instructed security guards to watch for young faces. Still, some shareholders are pressing for more robust action.

Perdue Farms, where a 14-year-old’s arm was maimed while he was working for a cleaning company at a Virginia slaughterhouse, said it has added age verification audits for contractors. After The Times reported last year that children hired by an outside staffing agency were working on Cheerios and other household products at the contract manufacturer Hearthside Food Solutions, the company said it had begun requiring workers to prove their ages with government-issued photo identification.

Packers Sanitation Services, which last year paid a $1.5 million fine from the U.S. Department of Labor for sending children to clean slaughterhouses, has gone even further. It has told hiring managers to reject job applicants if they look too young to match the ages in their documents, even if they pass every other kind of screening.

Some companies are opting to hire night-shift workers directly, rather than using contractors, to avoid potential violations. These include the global meatpacker JBS, where middle schoolers brought in by Packers Sanitation suffered chemical burns. This work will now be done in-house, by unionized workers.

The Times’s December report focused on shortcomings in audits performed by UL Solutions, one of the country’s largest firms that checks workplaces for labor violations as part of a so-called social audit. The company is planning an initial public offering, with a targeted valuation of $5 billion. This year, UL has been exploring selling off its social auditing business before the public offering, according to three people familiar with the talks. UL Solutions declined to comment.

Auditors expect child labor to be a major focus of corporations this year. In January, Amazon convened companies including Target, Disney and PepsiCo to discuss ways to eliminate underage workers in American supply chains. Another summit, this one sponsored by Walmart and focusing on improving social audits, is planned for March.

The nonprofit groups Verité and AIM-Progress, which promote responsible labor practices, are retraining 600 American suppliers and staffing agencies. The initiative is funded by 12 corporations, including some companies that The Times found had benefited from migrant child labor: McDonald’s; General Mills; the snack food giant Mondelez, which owns Oreo and dozens of other products; Cheez-It’s owner, Kellanova; and Unilever, the company behind Ben & Jerry’s. The new guidance directs suppliers to ensure that any children found working are given social services, and not simply fired.

“They should also be looking at what they’re paying people,” said Verité’s chief executive, Shawn MacDonald, “and why they’re having trouble finding people beyond children who are willing to take this work.”

by NYTimes