During the day, immigrant teenagers attend high school. At night, they work in factories to pay debts to smugglers and send money to family. The authorities aren’t surprised by child labor. They’re also not doing much about it.
ProPublica Illinois is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.
This story was co-published with Mother Jones and El País.
It’s a little before 6 a.m. and still dark when Garcia gets home from work this October morning. The apartment where he lives with his aunt and uncle is silent. They’ve already left for their own jobs.
After nine hours hosing down machinery at a food processing plant, Garcia is tired and hungry. But he has less than an hour to get ready for high school, where he is a junior. He quickly showers, gets dressed and reheats some leftover chicken soup for a meal he refers to as his dinner. Then he gulps down some coffee, brushes his teeth and walks outside to catch the school bus waiting near the edge of the sprawling apartment complex.
Here in the Chicago suburb of Bensenville, and in places like it throughout the country, Guatemalan teenagers like Garcia spend their days in class learning English and algebra and chemistry. At night, while their classmates sleep, they work to pay debts to smugglers and sponsors, to contribute to rent and bills, to buy groceries and sneakers, and to send money home to the parents and siblings they left behind.
They are among the tens of thousands of young people who have come to this country over the past few years, some as unaccompanied minors, others alongside a parent, amid a spike in the number of Central American migrants seeking asylum in the U.S.
Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting
Around Urbana-Champaign, the home of the University of Illinois, school district officials say children and adolescents lay shingles, wash dishes and paint off-campus university apartments. In New Bedford, Massachusetts, an indigenous Guatemalan labor leader has heard complaints from adult workers in the fish-packing industry who say they’re losing their jobs to 14-year-olds. In Ohio, teenagers work in dangerous chicken plants.
ProPublica interviewed 15 teenagers and young adults in Bensenville alone who said they work or have worked as minors inside more than two dozen factories, warehouses and food processing facilities in the Chicago suburbs, usually through temporary staffing agencies, and nearly all in situations where federal and state child labor laws would explicitly prohibit their employment.
Though most of the teens interviewed for this story are now 18, they agreed to speak on the condition that they not be fully identified and that their employers not be named because they feared losing their jobs, harming their immigration cases or facing criminal penalties.
Some began to work when they were just 13 or 14, packing the candy you find by the supermarket register, cutting the slabs of raw meat that end up in your freezer and baking, in industrial ovens, the pastries you eat with your coffee. Garcia, who is 18 now, was 15 when he got his first job at an automotive parts factory.
Like many adult workers, they often don’t even know the names of the factories where they work. They refer to them, in Spanish, by the product they make or pack or sort: “los dulces” (the candies), “los metales” (the metals) and “las mangueras” (the hoses).
The teenagers use fake IDs to get the jobs through temporary staffing agencies that recruit immigrants and, knowingly or not, accept the papers they are handed. Working overnight allows the teens to attend school during the day. But it’s a brutal trade-off. They nod off in class; many ultimately drop out. And some, like Garcia, get hurt. Their bodies bear the scars from cuts and other on-the-job injuries.
Labor advocates say they’ve long heard whispers about child labor, but whenever they try to dig deeper, nobody wants to talk. Adult factory workers at some facilities say they routinely encounter children on their shifts. And teachers say they have had students who have gotten injured at work and were too afraid of getting in trouble to seek help.
Meanwhile, the government agencies charged with enforcing child labor laws don’t look for violations, though some officials say they aren’t surprised to hear it’s happening. Instead, those agencies wait for complaints to come to them, and they almost never do.
The companies benefit from the silence. It’s an open secret no one wants exposed, least of all the teenagers doing the work….