When you hear the term “child labor,” do you picture America?

The reality is that child labor is a pressing, local issue. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) noted a 283 percent increase in instances of child labor since 2015, which is likely only representing a fraction of total cases, considering those not caught by the government. Although child labor seems detached from American values, our society’s deep roots in consumerism incentivize such practices. The idea of prioritizing money over employee welfare, empathy, personal enjoyment, relaxation and quality time has become so terrifyingly normalized in work culture that, when taunted with a cheap and disposable workforce, it seems as though American companies leap at the opportunity to add more zeros to their check.

American child labor is stoked by an array of compounding issues and failures, including a wave of proposed and enacted repeals in state-level child labor protections, which are supposed to restrict work hours, bar minors from hazardous work and monitor wages — despite federal wages already being inadequate.

Steve Fraser, writer for The Nation, notes a trend I’ve observed for years — “it’s an open secret” that fast food chains use child labor and treat fines as part “of doing business.” Working at a theme park in my early teens, I watched first-hand as the large company — one that had enough superficial funds to cruise through [COVID-19] — hire children for lifeguarding, ride operating and food service jobs while easily absorbing fines with the money made from this vast, underpaid workforce.

But, fast food is not the only place children work in America. A brilliant New York Times (NYT) investigation found children running milk machines in Vermont, delivering food in New York [state], washing sheets in Virginia, harvesting coffee in Hawaii, building roofs in Florida and Tennessee, working in slaughterhouses in Delaware, sawing planks of wood in South Dakota, stitching tags in California and making Fruit of the Loom socks in Alabama.

Companies like Walmart and Target have kids baking their dinner rolls. Milk for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream is processed by children while General Motors and Ford auto parts are constructed by children. Worldwide, an estimated 152 million minors are at work with approximately six million working in America. Many children work legally, with varying degrees of exploitation, but the most pressing problem lies in illegal, outsourced, undocumented labor.

According to NYT investigator Hannah Dreier, a majority of those illegally employed in America are migrant children sent to support their family from the south. These children arrive in the thousands alone, since adults would be turned away at the border, coming with the hopes of sending remittance payments back home. Border centers quickly began filling up with children looking for a better life, eventually off-loading to detention camps where pictures of living conditions went viral a few years ago.

Solo immigrant children are meant to wait for an American sponsor, ideally a relative, but as border optics tanked, demands from President Joe Biden’s administration caused Human and Health Service (HHS) workers to rush the sponsor-vetting process.

“Twenty percent of kids have to be released every week or you get dinged,” Ms. Keswani, an ex-HHS worker, told Dreier. These flaws resulted in the release of children to those who view sponsorship as a money-making venture, sending the children in their care to work with the expectation of a cut of the paycheck. Caseworker Annette Passalacqua saw this so much she gave up reporting cases and “settled for explaining to the children that they were entitled to lunch breaks and overtime.”

Money corrupts people — this seems to be agreed on — but money corrupts systems too. American structures of commerce, labor and bureaucracy are all rusting under years of stagnancy, developing more ethical holes as the country grows and society becomes more complex.

People like 13-year-old Nery Cutzal are the first ones being swallowed up by the overconsumption rat race perpetuated by social platforms. Nery arrived in America with a bill of over $4,000 from the sponsor he met on Facebook, prompted with threatening messages — “Don’t mess with me … You don’t mean anything to me.”

While Nery’s sponsor was found guilty in court — one of only around 30 cases ever brought to trial — the general trend is that most kids go without justice. The NYT article listed many other stories of children stuck working overnight, extended and sub-minimum wage shifts at factories with dangerous equipment, with no one to advocate for their welfare.

Nowadays, it seems as though change can only be instigated by social movements — we can have no trust in our core systems to choose morality or selflessness without pressure from an Instagram campaign, like the #MeToo movement, or a summer of protests, like Black Lives Matter.

Even that is fickle most times, barely addressing the waist-deep issues of our country operation. If platforms like TikTok remain preoccupied with items and trends and not on the migrant children put to work, nothing will be done. In fact, more children will be hired to meet consumer demand. However, is it fair to expect average people to be on top of every human injustice, every systemic crime, every person wronged by our flawed cultural ethos?

Perhaps not. Yet, what do we do when children are routinely being exploited on our front lawn?

“I didn’t get how expensive everything was,” Jose Vasquez, a 13-year-old working 72 hours a week on a Michigan egg farm, told Dreier. “I’d like to go to school, but then how would I pay rent?”

The hopelessness in those affected proves that capitalism funds business-first legislation and incentivizes companies to prioritize margins over people. TikTok shop, Temu and SHEIN, for example, set a precedent of infinite inventories and ultra-cheap products, rewiring consumers and pressuring American companies to meet expectations. We are stuck in a culture built around the interests of money-seekers, the exploiters and the 1 percent. They are the ones that code social media algorithms, push Super Bowl ads and spread propaganda.

Plus, if the average American continues to demand possessions, companies will continue finding ways to meet demands while cutting costs. Where adults may form unions, spread information or file lawsuits, children — especially migrant children — are a vulnerable, unsupported demographic that can be forced into dangerous, underpaid work and fly under media radar.

I believe every American needs to interrogate why everything feels so devoid of choice nowadays, and how a government and monetary system installed almost 300 years ago may not be the most apt tool for modern complexities.

There are also less theoretical ways to combat child labor. If social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram continue convincing people life is about the ways you can optimize and aestheticize your life with products, it will be in companies’ best fiscal interest to turn a blind eye to child labor, especially while legal repercussions remain so minimal. So, if you are reading this, consider rejecting consumerism propagated by social media — don’t buy new things as soon as they come out, don’t buy without serious contemplation, reject trends and cyclical fashion.

It’s a frustrating and insufficient answer to a troubling problem, but, before monumental and structural changes are made, we are chained to a country most occupied with how it can serve its billionaires.

Emily Vega is a senior majoring in English.

Views expressed in the opinions pages represent the opinions of the columnists. The only piece which represents the views of the Pipe Dream Editorial Board is the Staff Editorial.