In March, the Labor Department fined a Tennessee manufacturer nearly $300,000 for employing minors to operate dangerous equipment.

Tuff Torq Corp., which makes components for lawn tractors and outdoor power equipment, also must set aside $1.5 million in profits for the 10 children it employed, according to a consent judgment entered in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee. Children as young as 14 were subject to “oppressive child labor,” according to a department press release.

“Our work will help prevent the next death or injury by ensuring Tuff Torq takes immediate and significant steps to stop the illegal employment of children,” Jessica Looman, wage and hour division administrator at the Labor Department, said in a statement.

In an article published in the Washington Post, a spokesman for Tuff Torq said the employees in question were temporary workers placed by a staffing agency. An internal investigation revealed that those workers had used fake names and credentials when applying with the agency.

The company is now working to strengthen its in-house protocols and clarify expectations with suppliers. “Tuff Torq is dedicated to ensuring that [its] products and services are produced under ethical conditions, with a strong emphasis on fair labor practices, and Tuff Torq is further strengthening [its] training and compliance programs,” the spokesman said.

The Labor Department is now investigating the staffing agency, which has not been named.

Unfortunately, the Tennessee case is not an isolated incident. Child labor violations have increased dramatically nationwide in recent years. For the year ended Sept. 30, 2023, the federal government recorded 5,792 minors working in violation of child labor laws. That’s 50 percent more than in 2022 and 154 percent more than in 2021. The Labor Department also levied more than $8 million in fines for child labor violations last year, a 66 percent increase from 2022.

Child Labor Enforcement Statistics

Source: U.S. Department of Labor

In fairness, many of those violations have come from the restaurant and hospitality industry, but manufacturing is hardly blameless. In September 2022, for example, the Labor Department obtained a federal court order to stop an auto parts manufacturer in Alexander City, AL, from employing 13-, 14- and 15-year-old workers illegally, and to prevent the company from shipping or delivering any goods produced in violation of federal child labor laws.

There are two major factors behind the uptick in child labor violations.

One is the tight labor market. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturers posted 562,000 job openings in February 2024—and that’s an improvement. There were, on average, 613,000 manufacturing job openings each month throughout 2023.

Another factor is the surge in immigration from Central and South America, which has brought thousands of unaccompanied minors into the United States. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services received a record 128,904 unaccompanied minors, up from 122,731 in the prior year.

It’s particularly sickening for me to think of children fleeing violence and exploitation in their home countries only to be exploited here by unscrupulous employers looking to turn a profit. Any careful and ethical manager ought to be able to recognize a 13-year-old child, fake ID or not.

I have always been an advocate of kids 16 and up getting jobs. It was the norm back in my day. I and many of my high-school classmates had jobs to buy clothes, put gas in the car, go on dates, or save for college tuition. Having a job teaches you responsibility and the value of a buck. But, they were nonhazardous jobs: bagging groceries, busing tables, scooping ice cream.

That said, children under 16 have no place in factories. We turned that page more than century ago. (In 1904, for example, the textile industry in the South employed 50,000 children under 16, almost half of whom were under 12.) Let kids be kids. There are better ways to solve the labor shortage in today’s factories.