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A new bill aims to protect children from companies with a track record of exploitation

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Biden administration is making big changes to immigration policies in the country. Last Thursday, they announced measures that include ramping up deportations for migrants entering illegally and new processing centers in Guatemala and Colombia. But some lawmakers also want crackdowns in the U.S. labor market. They say many underage migrant children are being exploited by corporations, especially food production companies.

One of those policy makers is Representative Greg Casar, a Democrat from Texas. On Tuesday, he introduced a bill called the Child Labor Exploitation Accountability Act. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

GREG CASAR: Thanks so much for having me.

RASCOE: So before we dive into the bill, I want to get your reaction to the Biden administration's new immigration announcements that they made.

CASAR: I believe that we need more legal pathways for immigrants and immigrants coming to this country. The Biden administration, I believe, has had a mixed record on this. I don't think that by having more crackdowns against innocent families that are just coming here for a better life, that we're really going to turn out much better. But some of the Biden administration's steps to have more legal pathways and orderly ways for folks to come here - I think that that's a step in the right direction. We need to see a change from top Republican officials if we want to see something happen.

And so I believe that the Biden administration needs to move forward as much as they can on their own to provide legal and safe pathways for immigrating here. If we have legal pathways for immigrants to be able to work not in the underground market, but work on a level playing field with everybody else, then it'll be easier for them to assert their rights when they're being exploited like we're seeing by these big meatpacking companies and other large corporations.

RASCOE: Well, let's dig into that briefly. Your bill aims to prevent the Department of Agriculture from engaging in contracts with companies that have committed egregious labor law violations, especially employing minors and having them work in dangerous conditions. So how would your bill make sure that that actually happens?

CASAR: Kids belong in the classroom, not on a factory floor. This bill would end U.S. Department of Agriculture contracts with these egregious violators. If they have continued and repeated violations, we could ultimately revoke their licenses. And so if these megacorporations know that their profits could take a hit, then guess what? We'll see less illegal child labor if the corporations know they'll actually be held accountable.

RASCOE: But I guess my question is, a lot of these violations will happen off the books. And, you know, we've talked to experts, and they say part of the issue is that the government doesn't necessarily know that these violations are happening. Do we have the resources to even know and police whether these violations are happening?

CASAR: The Department of Labor needs more resources and staffing so that they can go and find out about these violations. But even when they do find out about the violations, the big corporations at the top of the food chain wipe their hands clean and they say that it's their contractors or subcontractors that are exploiting child labor or have unsafe working conditions.

RASCOE: And so, I mean, I guess - so how exactly would that happen? The contractor would have to be found to have been in violation by some authority, and then they would alert the USDA so that they could take action on the contracts. Is that how that would work?

CASAR: That's right. We have required in the bill that any labor violation that is found has to be reported to the federal government. And so one of the potential labor violations is intimidating or retaliating against workers that speak out. We need stronger whistleblower protections for those workers. Sometimes folks that exploit immigrant workers say, we're going to call immigration on you if you speak up about unsafe working conditions. And the Biden administration just announced that we can now provide protections for those immigrant workers to say, no, you're not going to get deported if you speak up about what's happening on the job.

RASCOE: In Arkansas last month, Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law that's going to make it easier for teens as young as 14 to work without getting a permit. And other Republicans are looking to loosen child labor laws. They're citing the tight labor market. Is your bill in response or also in response to these kind of changes?

CASAR: In response to the massive increase in child labor - there's two ways to respond to that. You could either be on the side of the megacorporations or on the side of the kids. My bill is to protect the kids because these big companies are going to be all right if they have to pay a decent wage, if they have to respect union rights and not put kids in dangerous situations, they're going to still be able to sell their food products. But they shouldn't be able to make record profits while using child labor, while having unsafe working conditions.

RASCOE: That's Representative Greg Casar from Texas. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

CASAR: Thank you so much, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.