Jan 4, 2021
Child workers can be found throughout the industrial workforce in Chicago’s suburbs.
According to a report by ProPublica, they work in food processing plants, metal recycling centers, warehouses, and auto parts plants, often starting as young as thirteen or fourteen. Many work twelve-hour, overnight shifts, six days a week, then try to go to school during the day. When they get hurt at work, or nod off in class and a teacher complains, no one wants to look deeper—not the companies that profit from their labor, not the government agencies supposedly responsible for enforcing child labor laws, and not the children themselves.
These teenagers come from Guatemala. After more than 100 years of domination by the United States, Guatemala is one of the poorest and most violent countries in the Americas. Since 2014, tens of thousands of children have been fleeing it to come to the United States and apply for asylum, many of them unaccompanied by any adult.
In order to make the trip, these young people have to borrow money from often violent loan sharks. If they don’t start paying quickly, those debts fall on their impoverished families who are still vulnerable in Guatemala. So these children need to work.
Throughout the Chicago area, there are temporary staffing agencies willing to hire these desperate children, that don’t look too hard at whatever papers they are handed. These temporary agencies profit by taking a cut out of the wages of those they find work for. Many are fly-by-night businesses, operating out of a store-front in an immigrant neighborhood. They offer a very useful service for the bigger companies: in addition to providing a flexible workforce, the temp agencies shield those companies from the risk of workers’ compensation claims when someone gets hurt, or the legal risks that come from employing undocumented immigrants ... or children.
Many of the factories they work at are themselves subcontractors—sometimes, subcontractors of subcontractors—which again shields the big companies from any legal obligations to these workers who make, move, or pack their products. In this way, parts made in Illinois by thirteen- or fourteen-year-olds can find their way into cars produced by some of the biggest, most famous companies on the planet.