Six weeks ago, The New York Times published a bombshell report detailing thousands of cases of illegal child labor exploitation throughout the United States. “Migrant child labor benefits both under-the-table operations and global corporations,” The Times found. “In Los Angeles, children stitch ‘Made in America’ tags into J. Crew shirts. They bake dinner rolls sold at Walmart and Target, process milk used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and help debone chicken sold at Whole Foods. As recently as the fall, middle-schoolers made Fruit of the Loom socks in Alabama. In Michigan, children make auto parts used by Ford and General Motors.”

Immediately after the report was published, the Biden White House pledged to “crack down” on this case of widespread criminality. Within two days, the White House released a plan detailing “new efforts” to, allegedly, curb the practice, which, it admits, has gone decidedly un-curbed in recent years: “Since 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor has seen a 69 percent increase in children being employed illegally by companies.” Interestingly, in the White House plan to deter businesses from exploiting child labor (and to hold them accountable when they do)—and all subsequent policy solutions proffered by US media pundits, analysts, and commentators—there is one key element missing, the most common tool for stopping criminality in virtually all other contexts: the use of prison sentences. 

Interestingly, in the White House plan to deter businesses from exploiting child labor…there is one key element missing, the most common tool for stopping criminality in virtually all other contexts: the use of prison sentences. 

The White House’s plan makes one passing mention of potential “criminal referrals where warranted,” but does not call to expand or increase criminal penalties, such as they are. Nowhere in Biden’s plan, and nowhere in subsequent public comments by officials from the White House, the Department of Labor, the Department of Homeland Security, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Department of Agriculture, or any of the relevant regulatory agencies, nowhere in The Times’ subsequent reporting and commentary, nowhere in the statements published by editorial boards, nowhere in the pundit chatter on Sunday morning talk shows—nowhere is anyone with real influence or power calling for tougher, longer prison sentences for offenders of child labor exploitation. 

When it comes to addressing corporate wrongdoing, throwing the offenders in cages to deter future wrongdoing, let alone extending their sentences, is simply not an option. It’s not that this method for meting out criminal justice, so widely used in other circumstances, is being considered, debated, discussed, and rejected—it simply doesn’t exist, ontologically, as a mechanism for corporate policing.

One of the few high-profile actions taken by the administration involved Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sending a Strongly Worded Letter to meatpacking industry leaders “urging action” to reduce their use of child labor. “Companies in food manufacturing—particularly those with significant market power—need to be vigilant about the standards of their suppliers to help reduce systemic violations and abuses,” the letter read. Vilsack frames the lawbreaking as a case of simple confusion over compliance minutia. 

“We look forward to continued engagement with you on the necessary mechanisms for eliminating illegal child labor in your supply chains,” the letter ended. “Our colleagues at DOL stand ready to provide compliance assistance and best practices toward these ends.”

To stop the scourge of literal children being illegally hired and exploited throughout the supply chain, the DOL and Department of Agriculture are rising to meet the moment by courageously offering to help you, corporate offender, fill out your forms better. No threat of criminal or even civil action. Just a request “urging” corporations to, pretty please, comply with the law.

The New York Times March 24 editorial on widespread child labor abuses by corporate America strikes a similarly friendly tone. Nowhere in the editorial does The Times call for prison sentences of any kind, nor stronger enforcement of existing criminal sanctions. Instead, it hints at (though never explicitly endorses) the Biden approach of increasing fines beyond the current maximum penalty of $15,138. But, much like the Biden White House, The Times Editorial Board doesn’t say what those numbers should be. They do, however, assure their readers that the offending corporations are on the case, investigating themselves:

The real target of these rollbacks [of child labor laws] is not after-school jobs at the corner hardware store; they will have a much bigger effect on a labor force that includes many unaccompanied migrant children who work long hours to make or package products sold by big companies like General Mills, J. Crew, Target, Whole Foods and PepsiCo. As a recent New York Times investigation documented, children are being widely employed across the country in exhausting and often dangerous jobs working for some of the biggest names in American retailing and manufacturing. (Several of those companies later told The Times that they would investigate any illegal practices and try to end them.) [Emphasis added]

Ah, well, those well-meaning companies told The Times they were going to investigate themselves! Never mind then; crisis averted. The Times Editorial Board doesn’t treat this claim with skepticism, nor does it call for criminal sanctions if companies continue to hire children. It simply takes this reassurance for granted and moves on to vague hand-waving about “immigration reform” being the solution. 

The Washington Post, for its part, hasn’t run a single editorial on The Times’ child labor report or the White House’s response to said report. While Post reporters like Maria Sacchetti and Lauren Kaori Gurley have conducted their own admirable investigations on the dark underworld of child labor, the Editorial Board itself has remained virtually silent. In its 80+ editorials since The Times’ exposé was published, the Post editorial page hasn’t mentioned it once. In the past year, the all-white Editorial Board has found time, however, to publish editorials calling for increased criminalization of fare beating and pushing for stronger drug war enforcement in San Francisco. They published two editorials calling for more police in DC schools, and a total of five editorials in the past three months calling for longer prison sentences. The Post Editorial Board—like the Biden White House, the New York Times Editorial Board, and virtually every major media outlet that’s commented on the story—hasn’t called for longer prison sentences, or any prison sentences, for people who illegally use child labor.  

The Washington Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos, is also executive chairman of the company that owns one of the offending corporations named in the article: Whole Foods. 

The Wall Street Journal, which has run editorials calling for the hypercriminalization of petty theft, has also remained silent on The Times’ child labor expose and the White House’s response to it. Instead, the opinion page has set aside column space for those lobbying to gut child labor protections

Nowhere in the half dozen follow up reports by The Times on the abuse of child labor were prison sentences even brought up as an option to deter wrongdoing. Contrast that with the half dozen New York Times articles over the past year alone that brought up shoplifting and petty theft: In all these reports, increased criminal sanctions were casually discussed as the most obvious and viable option to prevent future wrongdoing. 

The maximum fine for businesses employing illegal child labor is $15,128 with no prison time, while the maximum fine for illegally pirating a Hollywood film is $250,000 and five years prison time.

A bipartisan “Justice for Exploited Children Act,” co-conspired by US Reps. Hillary Scholten (D-MI) and Nancy Mace (R-SC), would increase fines for violators of child labor laws, but has no provisions regarding prison or jail time. A handful of Democrats did propose another bill, the Child Labor Prevention Act, in early March that could see “a year in jail” for “repeat or willful violation of child labor laws,” but this legislation is likely dead on arrival with no support from the White House or Democratic leadership. 

So, where are the DAs, police chiefs, think tanks, and pundits calling for prison time to address these reports of widespread child abuse? If tougher, longer prison sentences are how one shows they care about a crime in this country, then why aren’t the same institutions and politicians who cried out for more people in cages after a supposed rise in retail theft and “open air drug use” doing the same after observing a 283% increase in child labor violations since 2015? If ever there was a criterion for defining a crime surge, a 283% increase in criminal activity in eight years would be it, no? 

The maximum fine for businesses employing illegal child labor is $15,128 with no prison time, while the maximum fine for illegally pirating a Hollywood film is $250,000 and five years prison time. Shouldn’t this blatant soft-on-crime disparity outrage all the Tough on Crime blowhards?  

It’s simply taken for granted that criminal penalties for corporate use of illegal child labor is not an option. Conversely, it’s simply taken for granted that increased criminal penalties is the primary way one shows they care about street crime—thefts, shoplifting, drug dealing, and drug use. Indeed, during much of the debate around bail reform law, it was a popular assertion that not putting people in jail pre-trial was society’s way of effectively saying it did not take a crime seriously—that reforms such as California’s Proposition 47, which increased the threshold for felony arrests for theft from $400 to $950 (often replacing prison sentences with non-carceral punishment), was effectively the same as making theft under $950 legal. If this is the case for petty theft, if punishing shoplifting with a fine is society’s way of saying this crime is effectively legal, according to our corporate media apparatus, then why doesn’t this media apparatus say the same thing for how we “punish” corporate child labor abuses? If fines instead of carceral confinement are society’s way of saying it allows a “crime,” shouldn’t there be outrage that the White House and the editorial boards for the Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post all approve of widespread child labor? Why is prison time the first option for some crimes, and simply not mentioned for others? 

We all know the answer, which is that we live in a country with a two-tiered justice system with a cynical, arbitrary, and racist deployment of prison as punishment. Severe, swift, life-altering caging for the poor—and meaningless, token fines for the rich. No recent example makes this reality more stark than the lukewarm, civil, squishy, and conciliatory response by media and political elites to the Times’ exposé, treating thousands of cases of illegal child labor more like a bureaucratic misunderstanding than a widespread criminal conspiracy to knowingly exploit immigrant children to drive down costs and increase profits.

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Adam Johnson hosts the Citations Needed podcast and writes at The Column on Substack. Follow him @adamjohnsonCHI.