In India, I have squatted with kids on towering heaps of smelly trash, helping as they picked through rubbish for the tiny items they think they can sell or use. In Congo, I have knelt at the 2-foot openings of unstable hand-dug mines, waiting for 9-year-olds to clamber out, carrying the minerals that make this very laptop on which I write, glow.
In Cambodia, I saw children laboring on assembly lines in sweltering factories to make roller bag suitcases. In Kenya, and so many other places, it was young girls, some pregnant, even breastfeeding from recent births, being used by adult men for sex.
And that is how Americans have always thought of child labor: as a travesty of human rights violations “over there” – in developing economies, completely unlike our own. That myth has now been shattered by The New York Times’ recent investigations into what is reality here in the United States.
“We have child labor laws here” – so we believe. And so we do. Those laws are designed to prevent children from working at all, and to limit the hours school-age children can work.
But given that children are working under what amounts to indentured and slave labor conditions in every single state right here at home, we know that those laws are being broken, most egregiously by those who are exploiting the most vulnerable workers of all: underage migrant workers.
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Child labor is a moral crisis
These child workers are often isolated and without any kind of adult protection, breaking their backs on the vast fields and farms of big agriculture, which could be several days' walk from anywhere they could seek help, working long hours on physically dangerous factory assembly lines and, as The Times has documented, performing so many of the tasks that keep our economy going and make our lives easier.
We now know child labor supports, shockingly, so many of our favorite stores and brands: Target, Walmart, J. Crew, Whole Foods, Ben & Jerry's and my Mamaw's favorite, General Mills' Cheerios.
The victims often work all night, attempting to attend school during the day, many giving up on such an impossibly exhausting schedule. If they ask questions about their employment conditions, they may be retaliated against. Girls routinely experience sexual harassment and coercion by adult men.
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Whose responsibility is it to monitor such egregious workplace conditions, and to report such galling violations? It is the duty of the Wage and Hour Division inspectors at the U.S. Department of Labor. But they do not monitor and report – because they cannot. They simply do not have enough staff to perform this bedrock task.
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In 1978, the U.S. government employed one labor inspector for every 69,000 workers, already a vastly inadequate number. By 2018, each investigator was responsible for covering 175,000 workers, more than twice as many as before.
This understaffing of Wage and Hour inspectors can be an easy fix for the Biden administration. Yet, it was not a part of what the administration announced as its response to the moral crisis of child labor in America. It must be. Otherwise, we are party to a vast criminal industry – human trafficking – which encompasses both labor trafficking and sex trafficking.
Our laws are only as good as our enforcement
Human trafficking is defined by the Polaris Project, which documents its actions in North America and operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, as the business of stealing freedom for profit. It is a multibillion dollar criminal industry that denies freedom to 25 million people around the world.
Labor trafficking in general and child labor in particular can flourish only when greedy, unscrupulous employers are not held accountable by the labor inspectors who are supposed to be our eyes and ears in fields and factories.
The result of this lack of enforcement is both a human rights issue and an economic one. The impunity with which bad actors in the labor market can operate creates a race to the bottom on wages and working conditions that ripples out to competitors and into every sector of our economy.
Everyone wants to cut labor costs. It must not be done on the backs and at the expense of children. Children in America, and everywhere, should be in school, not on the graveyard shift working to earn money they are forced to pay back to coyotes, traffickers and corrupt sponsors.
So yes, we have laws that require employers to adhere to basic standards of modern workplace decency. Our laws are only as good as our enforcement. Hiring and deploying Wage and Hour inspectors to be on the ground to monitor and report the use of child labor is a fundamental first step toward holding abusers accountable for their actions.
Let the outrage that has begun to burn, burn brightly, shedding so much light on this cruelty that it disappears from our shores.
Ashley Judd is a humanitarian, writer and actor, and has served as a United Nations Population Fund's Goodwill Ambassador since 2016.
If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888, or text to 233733.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Child labor still exists in US, but we have the power to end it