Why the Construction Industry Is Relying More on Child Labor

Part of the reason is that the same industry has long depended on work from undocumented immigrants — some of whom are also children

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On the morning of April 14 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, amid sweeping cornfields, open sky and the calm, easy way of life that can make the Midwest so charming, Felicia Hilton stepped onto the worksite of Banjo Block, a $49 million mixed-use development funded largely by city and state tax incentives. 

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Accompanied by the Linn County attorney, the vice chair of the state Senate labor committee, and two members of Iowa’s House of Representatives, Hilton began her surprise tour of the sprawling Downtown Cedar Rapids construction site. 

As the political director of the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, Hilton usually leads elected officials, business people and law enforcement on unannounced visits to contrasting worksites to see the difference between legitimate sites that follow safety and legal precautions and those that do not. 

That morning at Banjo Block, lawmakers found not only safety and fire concerns throughout the nascent development, but they also came across an underage child serving as a construction worker — a discovery that set off a federal Department of Labor (DOL) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigation that is still ongoing. (The story was first reported by The Gazette in Cedar Rapids.)

“We found a kid no more than 11 years old,” Hilton told Commercial Observer. “What really triggered the investigation is that elected officials saw the child. If we had seen the child and took a picture, I don’t know what the response would’ve been. We’ve complained about finding kids on job sites numerous times, and nothing has been done.”  

Inaction is the rule rather than an anomaly when it comes to child labor in the United States — a phenomenon closely tied to a wave of illegal immigration and illegal migrant work spreading across nearly every state to create a Venn diagram shaded in the center by an unfortunate commonality: undocumented, underage workers.  

Hilton noted that on one worksite tour her team came across an entire group of child workers who entered into the country illegally from Honduras. Somehow they’d made it north to Iowa. 

“We see kids all the time,” she said. “Construction has an underground gig economy in it, and it’s mostly undocumented immigrants.”  

Peter Hird, secretary and treasurer for the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, described the confluence of illegal immigration, child labor and unregulated construction sites as “a melting pot of misery for workers,” and said that the most egregious violations in the industry never see the light of day. 

“Nobody really wants to come forward. So much of this is hidden underneath, unless someone goes and investigates it or some kid gets hurt,” Hird said. “On construction sites, there’s not a lot of supervision, no human resources department — there’s nothing like that to watch out for people.”

Moreover, the very nature of the construction industry — with its nebulous labyrinth of contractors and subcontractors, who use union workers and nonunion workers, often day laborers and illegal laborers alike — makes it particularly difficult to police an established set of federal hazardous occupation orders barring those under 18 years old from participating in construction work, or the dozens of hours of mandated OSHA training necessary to perform legal construction work. 

The industry is anchored by union-approved general contractors, who manage the work, and union subcontractors, who perform the work. But, there’s also an entire tier of general contractors that nefariously use nonunion subcontractors who bid on a job, get the job, and have no other employees except the undocumented and potentially underage laborers brought to them by “labor brokers,” or sponsors of undocumented immigrant adults or children willing to work for low wages. 

“We do have a lot of subcontractor labor brokers that do hire workers, and they misclassify them on the job site and they pay them whatever they want to pay them,” said an employee at the Central South Carpenters Regional Council, a union representing construction professionals in five Southern states, who asked to remain anonymous. “They 1099 the guys, and the working conditions are not up to par.”  

This network of illegal subcontracting of undocumented immigrants, child workers and migrant children is often buttressed by numerous other violations that cannot be enforced by federal or local officials, according to public policy research.   

“The construction contractors hiring teens illegally are nonunion, low-road firms that are often also cutting corners in other ways — violating wage payment laws and OSHA standards, failing to provide proper safety equipment and training, and putting workers of all ages in danger,” said Nina Mast, state economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, and author of a recent policy paper examining the issue.  

Hilton said that, despite her numerous complaints, very little regulation has been applied to the overwhelming use of child workers and other illegal labor on construction sites in her state. She said that in the last few years, Iowa has gone from 21 DOL site inspectors to seven. 

“The biggest problem we have with labor laws, in general, is the lack of enforcement,” she said. “Whenever a contractor gets busted, it’s a $500 fine and they move on. It’s the cost of doing business.” 

State of play 

If the construction industry is rife with contradictions and potential illegalities, then the state legislatures that regulate who can and can’t be hired on worksites have decided to muddy an already dirty pool of water. In fact, construction is just one of myriad blue-collar industries like factory work, packing plants and agriculture that have been upended by an influx of child workers and new laws aimed at accommodating that underage surge. 

For one, the demand for teenage workers is real. The number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws in fiscal year 2022 increased 37 percent over fiscal year 2021 and 283 percent over fiscal year 2015, according to DOL data found in a recent Economic Policy Initiative report authored by Mast and Jennifer Sherer. 

In the last two years, at least 10 states have introduced or enacted laws aimed at weakening existing child labor laws, with seven bills introduced in 2023 across six Midwestern states — almost exclusively sponsored by Republicans — that would undo current child labor protections, according to Mast and Sherer. 

On Aug. 1 in Arkansas, Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ Youth Hiring Act of 2023 went into effect. The law eliminated age verification, parent-guardian permission requirements, and mandatory work permits that 14- and 15-year-olds previously had to file with the state. 

Earlier this year, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, another Republican, signed a law that increased the number of hours 14- and 15-year-olds could work and changed regulations to grant 16- and 17-year-olds the same number of work hours as adults. The law allows 16-year-olds to serve alcohol to adults in restaurants (so long as their guardian gives written permission) and allows state agencies to waive restrictions on hazardous work for 16- and 17-year-olds across numerous occupations, including demolition, roofing, excavation and power-driven machine operation. 

The original text of the Iowa bill granted employers immunity from civil liabilities in the event a child experienced workplace injuries or death. Associations such as the Home Builders Association of Iowa and the Iowa Association of Business and Industry supported the new child labor legislation. 

“As a lobbyist, I served at the capital during the child labor debate,” explained Hird. “People there are lobbying from construction entities that want to give kids what they call ‘opportunities,’ but with opportunities come danger.” 

A recent report from the National Library of Medicine found that between 1994 and 2013, 142 minors under the age of 18 died while working on construction sites, while a Washington Post report discovered that 452 children died doing various types of work between 2003 and 2016.  

Proponents of the loosened child labor laws, such as Minnesota Republican state Sen. Rich Draheim, whose Paid Youth Trades Employment and Opportunity Act would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work on construction sites, argue that existing regulations block young people from job opportunities and close off companies from hiring ready and willing labor. 

“Eliminating work opportunities for youth just because of their age will make it even harder for businesses to find reliable employees,” Draheim told CO in an email. “Businesses teach these youth workers skills that will prepare them for their future, and maybe even attract them to their industry for life.” 

But advocates of stronger child labor protections, like Hilton and Hird, insist that elected officials like Huckabee Sanders, Reynolds and Draheim might argue for increased opportunities for ambitious youth, but they are being disingenuous about their true motives. 

“At first the bills were all about ‘There aren’t enough workers, there are workforce shortages,’ but when they got negative press, then they changed it to ‘It’s an opportunity for kids to earn extra money and take care of themselves or earn extra money for college,’ ” Hilton recalled. 

Associations attached to restaurants, factories and homebuilders are among the top lobbyists who have registered support for the bills in Iowa and Minnesota, according to state data. 

Hilton said the real motivations behind these laws is power and control.

“They get a very exploitable workforce,” she said. “The biggest complaint from kids when working is they’re working extensive hours. They’re working overnight shifts, not being paid overtime, they don’t know the law so they don’t know they don’t have to work late, and they’re less likely to join a union.”  

Jacob Monty, managing partner at Monty & Ramirez, an employment and immigration law firm in Houston and Dallas, has more than 25 years of experience in labor law. He described the GOP push to fill blue-collar jobs with underage kids as “putting a cheap Band-Aid on a gaping hole.” 

“It’s not going to address the labor shortage,” Monty said. “Our country has industries that need more workers than we have right now, and the problem is certain core industries — our food supplies industry, infrastructure, construction — are in jeopardy because of a lack of qualified workers.” 

See no evil 

If child labor is a point of debate in various state houses across the country, the issue is largely absent on the actual construction sites themselves, at least according to a pair of general contractors in Maryland and Texas. 

“I don’t see a lot of underage, but when I do see underage, it’s the parents bringing their kids to help them work,” said Edwin Valdez, who has owned his Austin construction firm for over 30 years. “I’ve seen it with electricians and sheet workers on my own sites. I’ll hire somebody, and, on the weekend, I’ll see the father there with the mother, the son and the daughter.” 

Another general contractor in Maryland, Blake S., who has over 47 years of experience and did not want to be identified by his real name or initials, was even more emphatic about what he’s seen on work sites. 

“I’ve never seen any underage stuff anywhere. That part I don’t know about,” he said. “But in the construction industry, there’s lots of illegals working, and there always has been. You can go to a Home Depot, used to be 7-Elevens, and there’d be guys out there, and if you needed spot labor you could pick them up and you pay ’em cash, and sometimes you found someone good and sometimes you didn’t.” 

Valdez supported this claim of a plethora of undocumented immigrant labor in his industry. 

“Most everybody that I see on construction sites are illegal,” he said. “Almost everyone that I see is either illegal, or they work with the Social Security numbers of their kids, who were born here, so they use their kids’ Socials to work.

“Usually, we don’t know any difference until we report to the IRS at the end of the year, and so then I have to let them go,” Valdez added. “About one out of 10 workers I hire, I find out afterwards that their papers aren’t any good.” 

And it is this phenomenon of illegal immigration and illegal workers that gets to the heart of the child labor crisis that has attached itself to the U.S. construction industry, as well as other occupations, in almost every state.  

“I can’t even define it,” said Linda Brandmiller, an immigration attorney in San Antonio. “It’s immensely more prevalent than what people presume or what the government admits to.” 

Thus far, the federal government has admitted to quite a lot. The numbers alone put it very plainly: The nation is experiencing an unmitigated wave of illegal immigration, much of it involving unaccompanied children. 

Over the last two years, nearly 250,000 unaccompanied children have entered the U.S. and been released to sponsors within the country, reaching an all-time high of 127,447 between October 2021 and September 2022, according to the Administration for Children and Families. To put that amount in perspective, between October 2014 and September 2020, roughly 250,000 unaccompanied children entered the U.S. and were released to sponsors over those six years. 

Children who enter the U.S. unaccompanied are typically apprehended by U.S. immigration authorities and transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they are cared for until a sponsor or a family member is found while the child awaits immigration proceedings. 

The problem, however, is that many sponsors of these unaccompanied children use them as living currency to feed a poorly regulated economic system that carries an unrelenting demand for cheap child labor. 

“They are often pawns in this game where the sponsor will cultivate a relationship with the parent [in the foreign country], promise the parent that child will have a great life in U.S. and go to school and work and send back money to them, and it sounds like a win-win for child and family,” Brandmiller explained. 

“But when the child gets here, the story I’m often told is they aren’t allowed to go to school, they’re put to work,” she continued. “And most often these children don’t pull out of that cycle until there’s a huge negative, something that happens to them or at the business, and then they get flagged again depending on their age, and depending on what happens to them.”    

A recent report by The New York Times highlighted the dysfunction of what so often “happens” to the unaccompanied migrant children. The Department of Health and Human Services is charged with vetting sponsors, but cannot monitor what happens to sponsors or children upon the children’s release. That job is supposed to be handled by the Department of Labor, which has defended itself as an employment agency, not a welfare agency. 

“Everyone knows it’s happening — city, state, local government, Department of Labor, general contractors — but they do nothing about it,” said Hilton.   

Adding irony into the confusion is that in over two decades of working numerous child labor and immigration cases, Brandmiller said that the most counterintuitive aspect of the entire circumstance is that so many of the unaccompanied children want to work as minors, regardless of conditions. 

“It’s more of an obligation they feel, it’s a huge sense of duty,” she said. “The child’s motivation is one of survival and, hopefully, in the end, to be able to provide for their family. The motivation of the employer isn’t altruistic. It’s only and always about cheap labor.”

Insidious incentives 

One of the most common questions that arises when examining the issue of child labor, specifically migrant child labor, is why it continues unabated. 

The short answer, according to attorney Monty, is fraud. Almost all national employers, big and small alike, use the E-Verify system managed by the Department of Homeland Security to authenticate the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S. However, E-Verify is merely an electronic system, one that is all too often easily manipulated, according to Monty. 

“People say, ‘How can you have underage kids clear E-Verify?’ and the simple reason is E-Verify has gaping holes in it,” he said. “The misnomer is that they call the problem undocumented. They aren’t undocumented. They have fake documents, and these fake documents are very, very good.” 

Monty said that he’s advised his clients to begin quizzing workers, asking them their birthdays, the name of their high schools or neighborhoods, and other personal questions to prove their eligibility beyond the bits of data filtered into the E-Verify computers.

If fraud helps perpetuate illegal child labor, then greed serves to cement the crime into the body of an infected network.   

“It’s money, it’s all about money,” said Brandmiller. “These are kids they don’t have to pay minimum wage to, they don’t have to pay anything to them in some cases.” 

Valdez noted that one of the main reasons general contractors and subcontractors in the industry repeatedly go to the well of illegal immigrant labor is because it’s so damn cheap. 

“They know how to do the work, and you can’t really find a lot of people that know how to do the construction work at a reasonable price,” he said. “Labor isn’t reasonable no matter who is doing it now.”

Valdez pointed out that labor prices have doubled. Two years ago he could frame a house for $5 per square foot, but today that same house costs between $10 and $11 per square foot to frame, he said. 

“Material has gone up, labor has gone up, fuel has gone up, everything is going up and nothing comes down,” he added.

But the siren of desire cuts both ways in this world, and if employers are willing to exploit the willingness of migrants to work at any price, then migrants, especially children, are more often than not choosing to grab that green American dollar, especially one that pays as well as construction.   

“In the construction industry, the bigger problem is it offers some great pay for someone looking to spend $600 to $1,000 on a fake document,” said Monty, who noted some construction companies do pay higher-than-
average wages. “If they’ll make 17 bucks an hour, that makes good sense. They probably won’t make it at a factory or a restaurant because the wages aren’t that high.”  

Brandmiller agreed with the conclusion, noting that even if a migrant child worker earns $20 per day at a construction site that’s “astronomically higher” than anything they could earn in their home country. 

“For the migrant kid, this is life-or-death survival,” she said. “In their mind, working is the only way to help themselves and be of equal importance to their family, and that’s the one thing that keeps this cycle going. It’s that fear and concern of, ‘Look what my parents sacrificed, and I have this opportunity.’

“But these kids are at the mercy of the person they’re living with, their sponsor, which is what makes them so vulnerable,” she emphasized. “The government is failing these children.”    

See no evil 

If child labor is a point of debate in various state houses across the country, the issue is largely absent on the actual construction sites themselves, at least according to a pair of general contractors in Maryland and Texas. 

“I don’t see a lot of underage, but when I do see underage, it’s the parents bringing their kids to help them work,” said Edwin Valdez, who has owned his Austin construction firm for over 30 years. “I’ve seen it with electricians and sheet workers on my own sites. I’ll hire somebody, and, on the weekend, I’ll see the father there with the mother, the son and the daughter.” 

Another general contractor in Maryland, Blake S., who has over 47 years of experience and did not want to be identified by his real name or initials, was even more emphatic about what he’s seen on work sites. 

“I’ve never seen any underage stuff anywhere. That part I don’t know about,” he said. “But in the construction industry, there’s lots of illegals working, and there always has been. You can go to a Home Depot, used to be 7-Elevens, and there’d be guys out there, and if you needed spot labor you could pick them up and you pay ’em cash, and sometimes you found someone good and sometimes you didn’t.” 

Valdez supported this claim of a plethora of undocumented immigrant labor in his industry. 

“Most everybody that I see on construction sites are illegal,” he said. “Almost everyone that I see is either illegal, or they work with the Social Security numbers of their kids, who were born here, so they use their kids’ socials to work.

“Usually, we don’t know any difference until we report to the IRS at the end of the year, and so then I have to let them go,” Valdez added. “About one out of 10 workers I hire, I find out afterwards that their papers aren’t any good.” 

And it is this phenomenon of illegal immigration and illegal workers that gets to the heart of the child labor crisis that has attached itself to the U.S. construction industry, as well as other occupations, in almost every state.  

“I can’t even define it,” said Linda Brandmiller, an immigration attorney in San Antonio. “It’s immensely more prevalent than what people presume or what the government admits to.” 

Thus far, the federal government has admitted to quite a lot. The numbers alone put it very plainly: The nation is experiencing an unmitigated wave of illegal immigration, much of it involving unaccompanied children. 

Over the last two years, nearly 250,000 unaccompanied children have entered the U.S. and been released to sponsors within the country, reaching an all-time high of 127,447 between October 2021 and September 2022, according to the Administration for Children and Families. To put that amount in perspective, between October 2014 and September 2020, roughly 250,000 unaccompanied children entered the U.S. and were released to sponsors over those six years. 

Children who enter the U.S. unaccompanied are typically apprehended by U.S. immigration authorities and transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they are cared for until a sponsor or a family member is found while the child awaits immigration proceedings. 

The problem, however, is that many sponsors of these unaccompanied children use them as living currency to feed a poorly regulated economic system that carries an unrelenting demand for cheap child labor. 

“They are often pawns in this game where the sponsor will cultivate a relationship with the parent [in the foreign country], promise the parent that child will have a great life in U.S. and go to school and work and send back money to them, and it sounds like a win-win for child and family,” Brandmiller explained. 

“But when the child gets here, the story I’m often told is they aren’t allowed to go to school, they’re put to work,” she continued. “And most often these children don’t pull out of that cycle until there’s a huge negative, something that happens to them or at the business, and then they get flagged again depending on their age, and depending on what happens to them.”    

A recent report by The New York Times highlighted the dysfunction of what so often “happens” to the unaccompanied migrant children. The Department of Health and Human Services is charged with vetting sponsors, but cannot monitor what happens to sponsors or children upon the children’s release. That job is supposed to be handled by the Department of Labor, which has defended itself as an employment agency, not a welfare agency. 

“Everyone knows it’s happening — city, state, local government, Department of Labor, general contractors — but they do nothing about it,” said Hilton.   

Adding irony into the confusion is that in over two decades of working numerous child labor and immigration cases, Brandmiller said that the most counterintuitive aspect of the entire circumstance is that so many of the unaccompanied children want to work as minors, regardless of conditions. 

“It’s more of an obligation they feel, it’s a huge sense of duty,” she said. “The child’s motivation is one of survival and, hopefully, in the end, to be able to provide for their family. The motivation of the employer isn’t altruistic. It’s only and always about cheap labor.” 

Insidious incentives 

One of the most common questions that arises when examining the issue of child labor, specifically migrant child labor, is why it continues unabated. 

The short answer, according to attorney Monty, is fraud. Almost all national employers, big and small alike, use the E-Verify system managed by the Department of Homeland Security to authenticate the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S. However, E-Verify is merely an electronic system, one that is all too often easily manipulated, according to Monty. 

“People say, ‘How can you have underage kids clear E-Verify?’ and the simple reason is E-Verify has gaping holes in it,” he said. “The misnomer is that they call the problem undocumented. They aren’t undocumented. They have fake documents and these fake documents are very, very good.” 

Monty said that he’s advised his clients to begin quizzing workers, asking them their birthdays, the name of their high schools or neighborhoods, and other personal questions to prove their eligibility beyond the bits of data filtered into the E-Verify computers.

If fraud helps perpetuate illegal child labor, then greed serves to cement the crime into the body of an infected network.   

“It’s money, it’s all about money,” said Brandmiller. “These are kids they don’t have to pay minimum wage to, they don’t have to pay anything to them in some cases.” 

Valdez noted that one of the main reasons general contractors and subcontractors in the industry repeatedly go to the well of illegal immigrant labor is because it’s so damn cheap. 

“They know how to do the work, and you can’t really find a lot of people that know how to do the construction work at a reasonable price,” he said. “Labor isn’t reasonable no matter who is doing it now.”

Valdez pointed out that labor prices have doubled. Two years ago he could frame a house for $5 per square foot, but today that same house costs between $10 and $11 per square foot to frame, he said. 

“Material has gone up, labor has gone up, fuel has gone up, everything is going up and nothing comes down,” he added.

But the talisman of greed runs both ways in this world, and if employers are willing to exploit the willingness of migrants to work at any price, then migrants, especially children, are more often than not choosing to grab that green American dollar, especially one that pays as well as construction.   

“In the construction industry, the bigger problem is it offers some great pay for someone looking to spend $600 to $1,000 on a fake document,” said Monty, who noted some construction companies do pay higher-than-average wages. “If they’ll make 17 bucks an hour, that makes good sense. They probably won’t make it at a factory or a restaurant because the wages aren’t that high.”  

Brandmiller agreed with the conclusion, noting that even if a migrant child worker earns $20 per day at a construction site that’s “astronomically higher” than anything they could earn in their home country. 

“For the migrant kid, this is life-or-death survival,” she said. “In their mind, working is the only way to help themselves and be of equal importance to their family, and that’s the one thing that keeps this cycle going. It’s that fear and concern of, ‘Look what my parents sacrificed, and I have this opportunity.’

“But these kids are at the mercy of the person they’re living with, their sponsor, which is what makes them so vulnerable,” she emphasized. “The government is failing these children.”    

Brian Pascus can be reached at bpascus@commercialobserver.com.