By Mica Rosenberg, Kristina Cooke and Joshua Schneyer
NEW YORK (Reuters) -Thirty-three members of Congress are urging the U.S. Labor Secretary to seek strong and swift penalties against those responsible for child labor in automotive plants after a Reuters investigation found kids as young as 12 working in Alabama factories that make parts for Hyundai Motor Co and Kia Corp.
In a letter addressed to Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, the group of Democratic lawmakers, led by Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee, pressed the department “to take immediate action to rid Hyundai’s supply chain of child labor.” Those responsible, the letter added, should be held accountable “to the fullest extent of the law.”
The letter, reviewed by Reuters, was sent to the secretary’s office on Friday, a spokesperson for Kildee said. In addition to Kildee and other Michigan lawmakers, signatories include representatives from California, New York, Massachusetts and 12 other states.
In a statement, Hyundai said the company “agrees that child labor is entirely unacceptable,” adding that it was “disappointed” the letter did not take into account “comprehensive actions we have taken in collaboration with the Department of Labor to address the allegations of underage workers at certain suppliers.” The Labor Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A Reuters investigation documented migrant children working in at least four major suppliers to Hyundai and sister company Kia in Alabama. The news agency reported that state and federal authorities were investigating as many as ten suppliers for potential child labor violations there.
Reuters found staffing firms had placed minors in metal-working factories, where the kids’ ages and amputation hazards and other risks make their employment illegal.
Authorities are also looking into whether children who worked at the plants may have fallen prey to criminal labor trafficking networks. Most of the children are migrants from Central America.
One of the suppliers, SMART Alabama LLC, is directly owned by Hyundai, Korea’s largest automaker and the biggest factory employer in Alabama. SMART supplies chassis parts for Hyundai’s massive vehicle assembly plant in the state capital of Montgomery.
“This is shocking, disturbing and has no place in the U.S.,” the letter said. It cited Reuters findings, including accounts by adult workers at some plants who said they raised concerns about children working, but were ignored by plant managers.
Earlier this week, Reuters reported that Hyundai was in talks with the U.S. Department of Labor to resolve concerns about child workers among its suppliers. The department said it is “committed to ensuring employers understand their responsibility under the law and engages with employers to help them achieve compliance.”
Hyundai has ordered probes of hiring practices across its U.S. suppliers and has pledged to take several other corrective actions, including implementing new employment training programs at parts plants and discouraging the use of third-party staffing agencies.
Hyundai and Kia, which assembles its U.S.-made vehicles in Georgia, rely heavily on deliveries of auto parts from an extensive network of mostly Korean-owned manufacturing plants in the region.
In their letter to Walsh, the lawmakers commended the Labor Department for its enforcement actions in the matter so far. After Reuters’ first story about child labor at SMART last July, the department and Alabama state authorities launched a probe into the supplier.
Last August, state and federal officials raided another parts maker, SL Alabama LLC, where they found and removed several children from the factory floor. They fined the plant and a staffing firm.
The lawmakers said they want the Labor Department to take further action because “additional automotive parts suppliers for Hyundai, mainly in Alabama, are also suspected of child labor violations.”