The Supreme Court is far from the only force that is determined to turn back the clock on human rights in the U.S. In Alabama, a Hyundai subsidiary called SMART, which supplies car parts to nearby Hyundai factories, was recently found to be using child labor. The discovery came after a 13-year-old girl went missing. Police found the girl in a parking lot miles away with an older coworker, both of whom said they were looking for work. When the police investigated further, they found that the 13-year-old girl and her two brothers, aged 12 and 15, had all been out of school for the past few months and working at the factory.
These weren’t the only young teens working at the factory, however. Other workers said they had seen dozens of underage workers pass through the SMART factory in recent years. One woman said she saw another 13-year-old girl come to the factory every day to work with her mother. Other workers at the auto plant said that there were around 50 underage workers across the 3 different shifts at the plant – most of them immigrants, according to a recent Reuters article.
This SMART plant is also extremely dangerous. The factory has amputation risks and has a history of defying OSHA guidelines. Since 2013, OSHA has fined the factory nearly $50,000 for safety hazards including crush and amputation risks. The most recent fine was this year. These problems have been worsened because of Hyundai’s policy of “just in time” supply chains which keep the factory running at breakneck pace.
Spokespeople for both Hyundai and SMART claim they had no idea that child labor was being used, and blamed the temporary agencies they rely on to hire workers.
But according to Reuters, in 2020 a SMART general manager wrote a letter to U.S. officials in Mexico saying that the plant was “severely lacking in labor” and that Hyundai “will not tolerate such shortcomings.” Many workers have confirmed that they have seen more child workers since the pandemic, when there has been increased labor shortages. And ever since news of their hiring practices has come out, SMART has fired many underage workers, according to former workers who spoke to Reuters.
It’s clear that both Hyundai and SMART are willingly hiring immigrant children to perform dangerous work in their factories. And they simply use the excuse of going through a hiring agency to cover their tracks. If they were to receive any fines for this, which is very unlikely, they would be tiny compared to the company’s nearly $100 billion in annual earnings.
There is nothing unique about SMART illegally hiring undocumented children to work in its factory. Over the past several years, many children and families from Central America, hit by economic crises, poverty, widespread violence, and destabilizing climate destruction, have fled to the U.S. for survival. Last year saw the largest number of arrests of migrants at the border in U.S. history, with 1.7 million.
The father of the three teenage siblings working at SMART is a Guatemalan immigrant named Pedro Tzi. He said that he regrets that his children went to work but that they needed any income they could get at the time. He said now his children are in school again and the family is “trying to move on.”
Corporations take advantage of undocumented workers and the desperate situation many of them face. Since undocumented workers can be easily deported, corporations can use this to their advantage if workers begin to organize and resist their horrific working conditions and wages. Often undocumented workers, including children, end up in the most dangerous jobs, working the longest hours. Corporations often prefer undocumented workers, especially children, because they are able to pay them the least and squeeze the most work out of them.
The only thing that’s unique about Hyundai and SMART is that they got caught. But so far, they have faced no consequences for their blatant exploitation of children.