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Rights and Justice

Addressing Child Labor and Protecting Immigrant Children: A Path Forward

A child holds a bucket with another child in the distance.Fourteen-year-old Cristian works a construction job instead of going to school. Fifteen-year-old Carolina packages Cheerios at night in a factory. Wander starts looking for day-labor jobs before sunrise. He is 13. These are just three of the migrant children highlighted in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series in The New York Times last year that exposed the prevalence of child labor in the United States.

The New York Times series, along with articles from Reuters (recognized with a Polk Award) and in The Boston Globe, exposed the shocking prevalence of child labor in the United States.

In particular, The New York Times reporting made clear that the kids who were profiled were unaccompanied children. These children, often fleeing conflict, poverty, or persecution, embark on perilous journeys seeking refuge in the US – only to be exploited by bad actors after they reunify with family here.

Unaccompanied children are especially at risk for child-labor exploitation, due to multiple exposures to trauma, Indigenous-language origins, and financial precarity. As experts on unaccompanied children, the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) works to ensure that unaccompanied children are protected from child labor exploitation with specific policy solutions to reach these marginalized children, and advance policy solutions that do not exacerbate existing inequities that leave unaccompanied children among the most vulnerable.

To mark World Day against Child Labor, we propose some solutions for addressing these challenges, both broadly for all children and specifically for unaccompanied minors.

Holding Employers Accountable

In any situation where children are harmed, we must focus on the perpetrators of those harms, as well as on those who benefit. Where child-labor exploitation occurs, this means a focus on employers. Key solutions include:

  1. Increasing Fines. Monetary penalties for a child-labor violation causing serious injury or death are currently limited to just over $15,000 federally, so low that employers dismiss them as the cost of doing business.
  2. Expanding Enforcement. Strengthening enforcement at the federal level through increased Department of Labor funding and improving coordination among local, state, and federal agencies is crucial. The DoL had only 733 labor inspectors for the entire country at the end of last year. To meet the ratio of inspectors to workers recommended by the International Labor Organization, the US would have to hire more than 15,000 additional inspectors.
  3. Joint Liability. A common reported feature of US child labor is the use of subcontracting to evade responsibility for labor violations. This allows a brand to benefit from the low labor costs of child labor while evading legal liability. Corporations must be held liable for child labor in their supply chains.
  4. Public Accountability. Companies and brands benefiting from child labor exploitation must be held publicly accountable. True accountability would include a recognition of harms to child laborers, reparative justice for those harmed, remediation for the situation that allowed child labor to occur, and a compliance plan to ensure that child-labor exploitation does not occur in the future.

Improving Protections for Children

Economic realities mean that many, perhaps most, unaccompanied children will work. Our feeble social safety net and the economic necessities facing most immigrant families mean that additional income is required. It is critical that we improve protections for children who work. Our protection solutions are structured around three main ideas: prevention of child-labor exploitation, intervention when it does occur, and improving how social services coordinate.

Preventing the Labor Exploitation of Children

Prevention starts with alleviating the financial strains on newly reunified families. For many children, direct financial assistance relieves the pressure to work. Indirect income-substitution programs, such as food assistance, can play a critical role in supporting unaccompanied children’s households. Finally, ensuring access to benefits and community-based services creates a robust safety net that meets the basic needs of children and their families, catching them before they fall into the cycle of exploitation.

We can extend our prevention efforts by looking at the quality of work. Working children are vulnerable to unscrupulous employers that push them to work long hours in dangerous working conditions. Employment authorization for unaccompanied children – which can only happen if Congress acts – is crucial to children’s safety. Behavioral health and mental health support are also vital in decreasing vulnerability. Usually delivered through local schools, these services provide children with the tools needed to navigate the challenges they face, reducing their susceptibility to exploitation and empowering them to seek help when needed.

Swift and Effective Interventions

When prevention fails, swift and effective interventions are necessary. Here, legal representation is paramount. Lawyers serve not only as advocates in court for children going through immigration proceedings, but also as trusted adults for scared children. Schools, too, play a critical role; they can equip teachers with referral resources, co-locate community services within school grounds, and strengthen Limited English Proficient programming, all of which ensure rapid, culturally sensitive, and practical responses to identified problem situations.

Coordinating Services for Unaccompanied Children and Families

No single individual or institution can guarantee 100% child-labor prevention. Protecting children requires that service providers coordinate with one another. This coordination has to minimize three critical service gaps: failures in continuity of care, referral gaps, and handoffs between agencies. Continuity of care failures can occur when unaccompanied children transition from shelters to communities, and in the process vital information shared with case managers is lost or becomes outdated. Referral gaps arise when problems are identified by schools or other institutions, but no relevant services are known or accessible. Handoff failures occur when communication breaks down between agencies or when needed active referrals – for example, walking a child to another agency – fail to occur. Service providers must work collaboratively, sharing crucial information to maintain a cohesive support network. Federally funded state-level coordinators can facilitate this process, ensuring that agencies coordinate effectively to provide continuous, comprehensive care.


Combating child labor and aiding unaccompanied minors necessitates a multifaceted strategy encompassing prevention, intervention, and coordinated services. By emphasizing both widespread employer responsibility and tailored, equity-driven child-focused initiatives, we can foster a safer, more nurturing environment for all youngsters. Advocates’ and policymakers’ expertise and dedication are pivotal in propelling these transformations forward. And proactive engagement from dedicated individuals at local, regional, and state levels will be instrumental in tackling and remedying instances of child labor across US communities.

Rights and Justice