Photo credit: Raysonho (Wikimedia Commons)
In Luverne, Alabama — the self-styled “Friendliest City in the South” — a Reuters report found that a subsidiary of Hyundai Motor Company has used child labor after the disappearance of a young migrant child from her home in Alabama. The young girl’s siblings — aged 12 and 15 — were also found working in the metal stamping plant. Former employees revealed that the plant, operated by Hyundai subsidiary SMART Alabama LLC, has employed around 50 children, many of whom are children of Central and South American migrants. Several of these children have forgone school to work long shifts producing vehicle parts for Hyundai’s Montgomery assembly plant — the second most productive assembly plant in the world according to automotive consulting firm Oliver Wyman.
The Alabama Child Labor Law prohibits minors under 16 from performing manufacturing work. SMART General Manager Gary Sport has tried to shift the blame to the hiring agencies used by the company to bring in new workers. However, Tabatha Moultry, a former SMART assembly line worker, cited high turnover and intense production demands as the company’s motivation for using migrant labor. In 2020, Sport wrote in a letter to U.S. officials seeking a visa for a worker from Mexico that the plant was “severely lacking in labor” and that Hyundai “will not tolerate such shortcomings.” The plant has been repeatedly fined for its numerous health and safety violations, including crush and amputation hazards.
Exploitation of immigrants and children: nothing new for industrialists
The exploitation of children in industry has a long history. In 1870, one in eight children in the United States were employed. By 1900, the number increased to one in five. Between 1890 and 1910, at least 18% of children aged 10 to 15 were employed. The use of machinery created many opportunities for manufacturers to exploit child labor. Children worked in coal mines, cotton mills, glass factories, farms, and fisheries, among many other workplaces.
Miserable working conditions, high rates of workplace fatalities for children, and the lack of educational opportunities fueled a mass struggle against the use of child labor. In 1903, union organizer and revolutionary Mother Jones led a caravan of strikers’ children to Theodore Roosevelt’s home in Long Island as part of the struggle for the abolition of child labor. In 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City to condemn child labor and demand better pay, shorter hours and voting rights for women. This struggle culminated in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which largely prohibited child labor.
The exploitation of immigrants in the United States is nothing new either. The chicken processing and meatpacking industries employ many immigrants and are notoriously dangerous workplaces. Over the past few years, hundreds of thousands of people in Central America have left their homes to seek higher wages and social stability in the United States — a result of capitalist globalization, which creates economic and political devastation throughout Latin America.
Upon arrival, many of these workers are forced by their employers to work grueling hours in despicable conditions for criminally low pay under threat of deportation. Reporters investigated the Hyundai plant after publishing another story about a 16 year-old Guatemalan migrant working in a chicken processing plant in Alabama.
This drive towards maximum profit dictates how companies operate, inevitably leading to gross violations of workers’ rights. The use of child labor in physically dangerous work environments is one example. Due to minimum wage violations, millions of workers lose over $8 billion annually. Young workers, people of color, immigrants and women typically bear the brunt of this underpayment. Large, high profile companies like Amazon and Starbucks subject workers to unsustainable working conditions and hours while using notorious anti-union tactics to prevent workers from organizing to fight back.
Under capitalism, the maximization of profit comes at the direct cost of the health and safety of workers — young and old. Despite these constant encroachments on the rights of workers, history has shown that workers of all stripes can fight and win the right to safety and dignity on the job through organized struggle.