Rampant child labor violations associated with prominent corporations underscore the need for coordinated enforcement

The United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) is currently investigating approximately 700 child labor cases around the country. In one such case, the DOL found that the corporation under investigation employed over 100 children across nearly 10 States to handle corrosive chemicals and perform other hazardous jobs during overnight shifts. The trend in labor abuses continues upward, unfortunately, with an almost 70% increase in the use of child labor since 2018. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the biggest corporations have become associated with such labor practices. Recent investigations have exposed the widespread use of child labor by, for example, Hyundai suppliers and McDonald’s franchisors.

The legal concept of joint employment continues to provide an important enforcement tool for the DOL as well as for the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, and private counsel who represent employees. The standard for establishing a joint employment relationship varies slightly depending on whether a case arises under traditional employment law, civil rights law, or labor law. Under traditional employment law, the generally applicable standard is the joint employer test; under civil rights law, the generally applicable standard is the integrated enterprise test; and under labor law the generally applicable standard is the single employer test. Regardless of the technical standard involved, the basic concept is the same: that the companies involved are sufficiently connected and controlled to warrant holding all of them accountable for the legal violations at issue.

Given the intensifying abuse of child workers, which may include harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and wage theft, both aggressive public and private enforcement must happen without delay. Private enforcement, especially through class actions and collective actions, can provide powerful remedies that include injunctions, compensatory damages, liquidated damages, and punitive damages. As exemplified by the advocacy work of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, public enforcement also remains essential to securing workplace safety and fairness.