When I first saw the headline about children working throughout the Hyundai–Kia supply chain, I started wondering what 3rd world country this was referring to. Then I saw the end of the Reuters headline — Alabama! The highly esteemed United States of America! True, we don’t have public health care like most of the developed world, and the number of people living in poverty or even homeless is sky high, but extensive child labor in the auto manufacturing industry? Really? That’s what the Reuters investigation found.
“Children worked for at least four Alabama parts suppliers to Hyundai and Kia in recent years,” the news organization found. “Staffing agencies placed migrant minors in plants where regulations ban kids from working. State and federal authorities are investigating.” Government investigators are now exploring whether or not several other supply chain companies have employed children in Alabama.
This isn’t a cleantech topic, per se, but it seemed like a story we couldn’t skip. We should be long past the issue of child labor. Of course, some capitalists would love to go back to the era of rampant child labor — and some apparently have already decided to do so.
Despite hearing from other former employees and parents of children who reportedly worked at these facilities, the PR firm for a couple of the suppliers (it’s the same PR firm) claimed that they didn’t hire anyone below a legally employable age “to the best of our knowledge” (statements from both companies using the same language) and it was the policy of these companies, Hwashin and Ajin, to forbid any such hiring. While this is the first Reuters investigation discovering child labor at Hwashin and Ajin, it’s not the investigation team’s first rodeo in Alabama. As they write:
“The news follows a Reuters report in July that revealed the use of child workers, one as young as 12, by SMART Alabama LLC, a Hyundai subsidiary in the south Alabama town of Luverne. In August, the U.S. Department of Labor said that SL Alabama LLC, another Hyundai supplier and a unit of South Korea’s SL Corp, employed underage workers, including a 13-year-old, at its factory in Alexander City.”
The idea that no one knew about any illegal activity seems dubious, as one story from August implies. “On Aug. 22 a team of Labor Department and Alabama state inspectors arrived unannounced at one of Ajin’s plants, according to people familiar with the operation. As the team arrived, workers rushed out the back and left the premises before they could be questioned, one of the inspectors told a meeting of Alabama’s anti-human trafficking task force last month, according to two people who attended. The inspection hasn’t previously been reported.”
Kia and Hyundai, naturally, claim no awareness of this issue and provided Reuters with firm statements. The companies, both underneath Hyundai Motor Group, also said that they are now reviewing the hiring practices of their suppliers.
As bad as Hyundai and Kia may look here, or at least their suppliers, the fact is there’s been an informal system in place that may be the top culprit. Interviewing more than 100 people with some connection or another to the situation — from labor recruiters to state and federal officials — the Reuters investigators found that minors who had immigrated to the USA without parents or guardians had obtained fake IDs, “sometimes with the help of staffing firms themselves,” and then been fed into these jobs. Perhaps the fake IDs tricked the employers. Perhaps they knew what was happening, looked the other way, and hired children on purpose.
There’s much more to the story, which you can read about on Reuters, including the pressures put on suppliers that encouraged them to cut corners with cheap labor coming from external staffing agencies — not to say it’s right or excusable. It’s just to say this is a grey area with a lot of causes, a lot of problems, and no clear happy ending.
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