By Mica Rosenberg, Joshua Schneyer and Kristina Cooke
MONTGOMERY, Alabama (Reuters) - On Nov 22, a team of state and federal labor officials conducted a surprise inspection and noticed a young-looking worker at a warehouse operated here by the logistics unit of Korean automaking giant Hyundai Motor Group.
The inspectors, according to an Alabama Department of Labor field report reviewed by Reuters, had received a complaint from an unspecified tipster about "under-age children working" at the facility. During their visit to Hyundai Glovis Co Ltd, the report notes, the boy "was manually restacking large metal castings."
Inspectors approached the boy, named in company paperwork as "Fernando Ramos," and questioned him about his age and schooling. Answering in Spanish, the boy said he was 18 years old and had attended a Montgomery middle school. But the documents in his personnel file, inspectors determined later, identified "Fernando Ramos" as a 34-year-old man from Tennessee.
Nothing but the name of the middle school proved to be true.
Inspectors learned the boy, a migrant from Mexico, had just turned 16. And the credentials in his file – a forged Tennessee ID and a phony social security card – didn't look remotely legitimate. The state ID featured another person's picture. The name and number on the social security card were printed in two different, inauthentic fonts.
Investigators concluded the boy had been using them since he was 14.
The boy had been hired by a labor recruiter, a staffing agency of the kind that fills many manufacturing jobs in Alabama and across the United States. Although some warehouse and factory jobs can be performed legally by 16-year-olds, investigators allege that labor recruiters had employed the boy repeatedly even before he turned that age.
Staffing agencies, they soon alleged, had hired him for work in at least three other Alabama auto-parts makers for Hyundai, the largest factory employer in the state and the third-largest U.S. automaker by sales. "Wages being reported for F. RAMOS," the field report noted, "for numerous companies."
The finding led the Alabama Department of Labor in February to fine three local staffing agencies, alleging they had illegally hired the boy for factory work. None of the agencies disputed the allegation, and each paid penalties of $5,050, the maximum state levy for a child labor violation. It isn't clear whether the recruiters will face federal penalties.
An Alabama Department of Labor spokesperson declined to make inspectors involved in the investigation available for interviews. The probe is part of "a continuing investigation into minors working in the Hyundai supply chain," department records reviewed by Reuters show.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Labor, which had officials present at the visit, also declined to allow inspectors to comment.
The spokesperson said the department's Wage and Hour Division has open investigations into Hyundai Glovis and Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama LLC, the carmaker's assembly unit in Montgomery. That unit builds about half the vehicles the Korean company sells in the United States.
The federal probes and the details of the state fines against the three labor recruiters haven't previously been reported. The U.S. and Alabama investigations began after a Reuters report last July first exposed the use of child labor at Hyundai parts makers in the state.
In a statement, Hyundai said it has since audited suppliers and "strongly discouraged" the use of third-party labor recruiters. Last month in Montgomery, it added, the company held a training seminar on "illegal child labor prevention" attended by over 500 people from across its U.S. supply chain.
"Regardless of the involvement of third-party staffing agencies," the statement read, "Hyundai recognizes and fully embraces its responsibility to make sure all suppliers understand and meet our high global workforce standards." Hyundai didn't answer specific questions from Reuters about the boy found working at Hyundai Glovis.
In a separate statement, Hyundai Glovis said it has cooperated with investigators. Although its own in-house policy stipulates that workers must be at least 18, the company said it hasn't been cited for any legal infractions. The boy was hired by an agency, the statement said, and "the job of that individual was packing boxes, which is permitted for that age."
Hyundai Glovis didn't identify the agency that employed the boy or comment further on the tasks he was performing at the warehouse.
The ease with which the phony paperwork secured employment for a migrant minor at a major manufacturer illustrates the difficulties regulators face amid a surge in illegal child labor in the United States.
That boom has been driven by adult labor shortages since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and state and federal enforcement agencies say they need more resources to better combat it. The U.S. Department of Labor said in February the number of child labor violations in 2022 had soared by nearly 70% compared with the tally recorded in 2018.
Last year, Reuters revealed the use of child labor in hazardous factories across Alabama, reporting in February 2022 about teens from Guatemala illegally hired to work in chicken processing plants. Reuters also revealed the widespread and illegal employment of migrant children as young as 12 in Alabama factories supplying both Hyundai and sister-brand Kia.
In addition to leading to the probes by law enforcement and regulators, the coverage was followed by other media examinations of the problem of child labor in the United States.
The news agency's reporting helped prompt the rescue of several children from one factory floor and spurred at least 10 ongoing state or federal investigations. It also has been cited by members of Congress who are drafting legislation that would increase penalties, at present considered paltry by labor experts, for employers illegally hiring children.
Hyundai, for its part, announced it would divest its majority stake in a parts maker where Reuters first reported the employment of child workers.
Many of the child laborers found by Reuters worked under fake identities, often provided by staffing agencies or by brokers who specialize in forged documents. The United States has federal laws and systems meant to ensure the eligibility of prospective employees.
But phony credentials are commonly used by undocumented adult immigrants to get around those curbs. And bogus IDs also have enabled third-party labor recruiters to place kids in plants where it is illegal for children to work.
Those recruiters, in turn, can shield large manufacturers, like Hyundai, from the obligation to ensure their workforces comply with labor laws. "Our laws enable the lead corporations to avoid responsibility and use intermediaries to insulate themselves," said Terri Gerstein, director of the state and local enforcement project at Harvard Law School's Labor and Worklife Program.
To understand how phony credentials channeled a child to industrial job sites in one of the world's most developed economies, Reuters reviewed field notes, penalty letters, copies of false identity documents and employment records. Reporters this month obtained many of the Alabama Department of Labor documents through a state public records request.
Reuters also spoke with more than half a dozen people familiar with the probes into Hyundai's supply chain. They said false documentation, even shoddy credentials like those filed by the boy's employers, makes child labor laws difficult to enforce.
Unless authorities find children at work, confirm their real identities, and figure out who hired them, investigators can struggle to prove wrongdoing. After Reuters' initial stories about child labor in Alabama, workers in the area told reporters that agencies laid off many young-looking employees from at least five factories.
An Alabama labor department spokesperson told Reuters the agency is still working to determine who exactly hired the child to work at Hyundai Glovis. The boy had been "filtered," one of the state records notes, "through several layers of employment services."
Reporters determined the child's true identity through documents and interviews. Because he remains a minor, Reuters is choosing not to identify him.
The father confirmed the family's history in a phone interview. The man said he still lives with his son in the Montgomery area and that no government officials have been to their house since the boy left Hyundai Glovis. State records make no mention of investigators interacting with the boy since the surprise inspection.
Reuters also reached the real Fernando Ramos. He lives in Texas and expressed surprise to learn in a brief exchange, via Facebook, that his identity was being used in auto plants in Alabama. "What the hell," he messaged.
"THEY'VE GONE TO WORK SOMEWHERE"
The Mexican boy, then aged 12, arrived in the United States in 2019, according to a person familiar with his immigration history and the Alabama records. Part of a still-growing spike in unaccompanied minors entering the United States, he turned himself in to immigration authorities at the Arizona border.
Officials soon released him to the custody of his father, who was already living in Alabama.
When he arrived in Montgomery, the father told Reuters, the boy struggled with English, tired of school, and instead decided to work. The father said he was unaware at the time that the boy took the factory jobs.
After receiving the tip about Hyundai Glovis, Alabama and federal labor officials organized the November inspection of the warehouse, where parts are stored and prepared for later assembly by Hyundai. During the inspection, investigators saw the boy lifting the castings – big metal parts of the sort often used in vehicle assembly.
A federal official took a photo of the boy, the field report shows. A week later, a state inspector took the photo to Southlawn Middle School, where the boy told them he had studied.
At the school, two staff members and a student helped identify him. He last attended in September 2021, according to school records. One teacher, who taught English for non-native speakers, remembered him as a soft-spoken but truant teen. His mother tongue wasn't Spanish, but a Mixtec indigenous language spoken in parts of Mexico and Central America.
"He would be there for a few weeks and then he would leave," Rick Bevel, the teacher, told Reuters. As with other migrant students who often disappeared, he added, "I assume they've gone to work somewhere."
It isn't clear how the Ramos ID documents became associated with the boy or when he may have first worked in the Alabama auto industry. Reuters couldn't independently confirm that he was employed by the staffing agencies cited and fined by Alabama regulators.
But as investigators began researching, they concluded the bogus Ramos credentials had been used since at least 2021, when the boy was 14.
Many jobs are available to minors in the United States, such as waiting tables or clerking in clothing stores. But Alabama and federal law forbid the hiring of anyone under 16 in industrial plants, where machinery, heavy cargo and other risks can pose deadly hazards. The most dangerous jobs, including many in the automotive sector, are prohibited for anyone under 18.
Through on-site interviews at Hyundai Glovis and reviews of state wage records, investigators sought to identify who had hired the boy. The wage records linked to the phony credentials showed that at least three staffing agencies had used the documents: Ace Industry Co, of Dadeville, Alabama; Issac USA Inc, of Lanett, Alabama; and Job Supply System LLC, also of Montgomery.
It was enough for the Alabama labor department to fine those three recruiters. In penalty letters to each, the department cited the boy's genuine name and birthdate, alleged he had worked for them using the falsified documents, and fined them $5050.
David Martin, Issac USA's Montgomery-based attorney, in a statement told Reuters the company "has cooperated" with investigators and declined to comment further. The news agency was unable to reach Ace Industry or Job Supply System for comment.
The auto-parts plants where the boy allegedly worked haven't been accused of wrongdoing. In addition to Hyundai Glovis, those companies included three Korean-owned suppliers of interior components for Hyundai and Kia vehicles: Sejin America Inc, DAS North America Inc, and Daehan Solution Alabama LLC.
In statements to Reuters provided by a public relations firm, all three companies said they have adopted strict measures in recent months to ensure workers are legally eligible for employment.
Sejin and DAS didn't answer questions about the boy, his employment or the identity documents. Daehan, in its statement, said it has "no knowledge of the case referenced in your questions."
To determine if a prospective employee is authorized for work, Alabama and many other states require companies to enter identification details into a federal vetting system known as E-verify.
The program, operated by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, can determine whether a social security number is valid, but can't check whether the number actually belongs to the person for whom it is submitted.
The Ramos credentials, according to E-verify documents included in the Alabama records, cleared the system repeatedly.
USCIS in a statement said it has been working to improve E-verify. A spokesperson for the federal agency declined to comment on the use of the Ramos documents or the boy's case.
After the surprise inspection, the boy didn't return to work at the warehouse, according to a person familiar with the investigations. His father told Reuters the boy informed him of the inspection shortly after it happened. The father said he has tried unsuccessfully to get the boy to go back to school.
"When I brought him from Mexico, it was to study," he said. "I tell him to go to school but he doesn't want to."
Fernando Ramos, Reuters found, is a real person whose social security number and date of birth match those of the phony credentials used in the Alabama plants. Using public records and social media, reporters tracked him down in south Texas, about a thousand miles from the automotive facilities where his identity has been used.
In his online exchange with a reporter, Ramos said he had no idea how his details could have been obtained by the staffing agencies. Reuters sent him a copy of the false Tennessee ID bearing his name. "That picture," he responded, "it's not me."
(Additional reporting by Hyunjoo Jin in San Francisco. Editing by Paulo Prada.)