Local lawyer, staffing agency respond to child labor allegations

Local lawyer, staffing agency respond to child labor allegations
Hearthside Food Solutions makes baked goods and snacks at 19 plants across the U.S. Courtesy The Right Place

The ripples from an explosive New York Times article investigating child labor are rolling across West Michigan.

On Feb. 25, the New York Times (NYT) published an article by reporter Hannah Dreier exposing multiple manufacturers across the U.S. for employing underage migrant children.

One of those manufacturers, Hearthside, has several locations in Grand Rapids, utilizes West Michigan staffing agency Forge Industrial Staffing and employs migrant children, several of whom have been identified as Union High School students.

The article gained national attention, prompting reactions from outrage to grief.

Grand Rapids-based U.S. Rep. Hillary Scholten immediately took action, calling on Congress to pass immigration reform and urging the Biden administration to hold guilty parties accountable. She introduced a plan that has since been implemented by the administration. Hearthside and Forge Industrial Staffing have both issued statements, outlining plans to conduct reviews and revamp staffing practices.

Migrant Legal Aid Executive Director Teresa Hendricks has heard this song before.

She said during her 30 years of migrant legal advocacy in West Michigan, this type of situation has happened before and will happen again until something tangible is done to enact change.

“Immigrant lawyers like myself for decades have been fighting the same fight and sounding the alarm,” she said. “So, when I see a report like this and I see the reaction to it, I can’t help but think, ‘Spare me the outrage and show me some reform,’ because we’ve been sounding the alarm on this for decades, me personally for 30 years. We’ve been advocating for economic and immigrant immigration reform.”

Hendricks is no stranger to illegal labor practices and their effects on migrant workers. She spoke with the Grand Rapids Business Journal in January about the changing landscape of mistreatment against employed migrants.

She said she is personally unsurprised to learn that Hearthside is employing children.

“It’s more surprising to me that this isn’t more widely known,” she said. “It’s the hidden cost of food. I mean, this is an exploding type of exploitation.”

In her history of migrant advocacy, Hendricks said she is unfortunately accustomed to seeing child labor.

“I myself have recovered wages for a 4-year-old and 6-year-old,” she said.

Hendricks said this isn’t the first time Michigan has been rocked by child-labor claims and it likely won’t be the last.

“If you just Google ‘child labor plus Michigan,’ or you Google ‘blueberry children,’ you’ll see the initial expose and (then) the public interest and outrage quickly died away. And all we heard was lip service from our legislators,” she said.

The most recent incident was in 2009, when ABC News found children as young as 5 years old working at Adkin Blue Ribbon Packing Company in South Haven.

Adkin was cited by the Department of Labor (DOL) for violating federal child labor laws, as inspectors reported finding a 6-year-old child picking blueberries in Adkin’s fields.

The ABC News report cited Hendricks, who said, “It’s something that happens and people just put their head in the sand and know that it happens, a nod and a wink and we look the other way.”

In the years since, Hendricks said child labor has shifted from the fields to packing plants and industrial food production. Once children are out of the fields and not as easy to spot, their exploitation is forgotten.

“When there’s a limited production season and people are trying to earn the minimum wage, sometimes there are illegal production standards that say if you don’t make enough to cover your own minimum wage, you’re going to be fired,” she said. “That means that the kids have to help the parents pick, or the parents will be fired and then the family will have no income.

“Child labor has become less common in farm labor and more common in packing sheds and food production because it’s behind doors where we can’t see it as much,” she said.

According to the NYT, Hearthside is employing children as young as 15 who are still in school and work to support their families living outside the country.

Hearthside responded with a statement from CEO Darlene Nicosia, who said Hearthside is “appalled” by the allegations.

“Hearthside’s longstanding requirement is that everyone working in our production facilities must be at least 18 years old,” Nicosia’s statement read. “We go to great lengths to vet our workforce and ensure they comply with local, state and federal laws and the agencies we partner with do so as well. The claims in the article don’t match our values or how we do business.”

The statement also outlined Hearthside’s plan to enhance its employment process and take a look at hiring practices, including hiring an external law firm and performing an internal audit of Hearthside employees from its staffing agencies.

The audit, which was to be performed on a 25% random sample size of employees assigned to Hearthside, was to be completed by Feb. 27, immediately following the weekend report by the NYT.

Hearthside did not respond to the Grand Rapids Business Journal’s inquiry into the results of the audit.

“The ways that workers are exploited have changed over my 30 years and have become more complicated and more sophisticated,” Hendricks said. “And the employers are now multimillion-dollar entities and people that just broker labor, and then when the labor is injured or dies or exploited, they can just wash their hands of it because there’s no accountability. We don’t have enough investigators, and we don’t have enough people on the ground to help prevent exploitation and hold bad employers accountable.

“It’s a natural consequence of not having any immigration reform, not having any economic reform, and then setting up the business model where you use a middleman to shield your own culpability. And the middleman is the one that can threaten to retaliate, abuse, and then blackmail the workers into not complaining and accepting horrible conditions. And this is the most vulnerable population of workers there is, and they’re desperate. So, they all put up with absolutely inhumane conditions just to keep their job.”

The “middlemen” Hendricks is referring to are staffing agencies, which provide the workers to places like Hearthside.

At least one of Hearthside’s staffing agencies was identified by NYT as Forge Industrial Staffing, one of Grand Rapids’ largest staffing agencies.

Forge responded to the NYT allegations that it employed minors with a statement saying it “ … takes these allegations extremely seriously and has been horrified at reports of the scope and scale of exploitive child labor across the United States.”

Forge also said, “Under no circumstances would we ever knowingly place a child under the age of 18 with one of our clients. Following publication of the original article, we conducted an immediate internal review and have not been able to verify any of the claims made in the media report. All workers have provided identity documents to confirm they are 18 years of age or older.”

Hendricks said she isn’t so sure about those statements.

“It’s known that they hire minors,” she said. “I know of them hiring 14-year-olds, 17-year-olds. I mean, we have complaints that come in against staffing and the working conditions, and the workers are told that they have to speak to Hearthside about it, and then Hearthside won’t do anything about it because they say they’re not the ‘real employer.’”

Hendricks added the combination of a U.S. labor shortage and a dependence on foreign-born labor is “combustible.”

“It’s like a flashpoint,” she said. “But then when you use middlemen like staffing agencies or the H2A (visa) labor brokers, it’s like pouring gas on the fire. Now the exploitations are going to be 10 times greater. They’re going to be one step distant from the end user of the labor, which are the farm owners, and the farm labor broker or the staffing agency is going to serve to hide the culpability of the farm owner.

“And we know that they’re both joint employers because they’re both benefiting from the labor. But the one taking all the heat is usually a labor broker who can go out of business and pop up in another name. And the same thing with staffing agencies. There are certain staffing agencies where it’s a known secret that if you’re an undocumented or underage worker and you want to work somewhere, you go to this staffing agency. If you’re an employer and you know that, you don’t want to look real hard at somebody’s permission to work or their age.”

Hendricks said both employers should be equally held accountable, although each may try to pass blame onto the other.

“They’re both culpable, they’re both joint employers,” she said. “They’re both benefiting from the labor, so they should both be held accountable.”

Both Forge and Hearthside have stated that they are working in compliance with the Michigan DOL, but declined requests to speak with the Grand Rapids Business Journal.

An inter-agency task force by the Biden administration is bringing together the Department of Labor and Department of Health and Human Services to address the exploitation of migrant children in the U.S. workforce.

“I’ve been in constant communication with the Biden administration about their efforts to address these horrific, exploitative practices,” said Scholten in a statement to the media. “I immediately pushed for the creation of an inter-agency task force and I’m glad to see that the administration listened to my recommendation.”

Hendricks said Migrant Legal Aid has boots on the ground in Grand Rapids and plans to be “helpful in whatever capacity we can.”

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