Companies based or doing business in agricultural areas in the U.S. could soon be under increased scrutiny from the federal government, including Congressional investigators, stemming from labor trafficking of unaccompanied migrant children and teens.
This year alone, over 90,000 minors attempted to cross the U.S. When stopped at or near the border, the children are placed in shelters managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) while arrangements are made for their placement. To avoid overcrowding and decrease the time spent in HHS custody, the department quickly works to find placement for the children with relatives, foster programs, or other U.S. sponsors.
Unaccompanied migrant teens are at a heightened risk of being subjected to labor trafficking. Many teens are coerced into leaving their native countries by promises of a better life in the U.S only to face harsh working conditions. To illustrate – in 2015, a federal indictment revealed that HHS released several children to traffickers who forced them to work at egg farms in Ohio after promising the children good jobs and the chance to attend school.
HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement recently stopped releasing children to both Enterprise, Alabama and Woodburn, Oregon, out of concern for the wellbeing of the children released into the area. This moratorium was prompted by HHS’ awareness of an influx in sponsorships coming from agriculture-dense areas – Enterprise is populated with chicken slaughterhouses and Woodburn is filed with agricultural land.
The Department of Justice Human Prosecution Unit also uncovered that dozens of unaccompanied teens were being released to the same sponsor and forced to work in poultry processing industries and similar facilities in other jurisdictions.
As the federal government become aware of these practices and grow concerned with what happens after the children are released from HHS custody, companies could be subjected to increased federal oversight from both HHS and DOJ, and possibly auditing to make sure they are not involved in the labor trafficking.
Companies should also be aware of the potential for increased scrutiny from Congress. Congressional investigators at the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations have focused on labor trafficking of migrant children, and have issued several reports calling for changes to the oversight and monitoring of migrant children to prevent these abuses.
There is also some risk that companies may someday be held liable for producing goods with the use of the forced labor of migrant children.
Similar to the proposed Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, the influx in unaccompanied minors being sponsored in high agricultural areas could create a rebuttable presumption that the goods were produced by trafficked migrant children, resulting in heightened scrutiny and auditing.
As federal oversight in this area increases, companies should assess their workforce and supply chain to ensure that they are taking adequate steps to guard against abuses of migrant children, and to prepare to address questions from federal regulators and Congress about their practices.