The United States Department of Labor released its annual report on international child labor and hosted an event to launch it. Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs Thea Lee opened the event by talking about the state of the child labor in the world today. It’s a growing issue, driven by the changes in the international market and the ongoing effects of a global pandemic. Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su emphasized that it is not just something happening overseas, but an ongoing issue on American soil. In the last year, more than 800 companies employed more than 3000 children illegally in the United States, and those companies need to be held accountable.

Deputy Undersecretary Lee introduced the panelists: Martina Vandenburg, the president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, Andrea Rohas, a human rights attorney, and Hillary Axam, the Department of Justice’s National Human Trafficking Coordinator. According to the panelists, child labor is particularly difficult to combat. Kids are easier for employers to manipulate and are less likely to reach out for help. A lack of corporate accountability further plays into the issue. The fines that corporations face following labor law infractions are miniscule compared to the profits they bring in, and that’s only when repercussions are imposed. Despite how widespread the issue is, there were only 1,379 criminal trials globally regarding child labor infractions, and only 300 of them resulted in convictions. Discovery is imperative, but prosecution is equally important. Without it, many children who are removed from unsafe working environments end up back where they started.

Children in foster care, runaways, victims of abuse, and immigrants make up a disproportionate amount of people being exploited by the labor market. To take a trauma-informed, victim-centered approach to justice, victims need to be met where they’re at by people that understand how vulnerable they are. Many victims have barriers to speaking freely that need to be identified- fear of repercussions on their family or friends if they talk. It is imperative that investigators know what kinds of questions to ask, how to ask them, and understand the behaviors and habits that often go along with trauma and have previously been used to discredit victims. At the same time though, justice needs to be pursued in the interest of not only the victims, but the public at large, making it a difficult balance to maintain. Restitution is imperative if the victims are going to be able to reclaim their lives. For that to happen, prosecution must become much more common.

To conclude the session, Deputy Undersecretary Lee asked the panelists what gave them hope for the future. All three of them echoed similar sentiments- a renewed level of care and awareness in society, investigative journalists that passionately pursue the truth about the child labor market, and resilient survivors that have been rebuilding their lives.

By Rebekah Lawatsch, Policy Intern