by Carter Pohl

When a Luverne, Alabama Hyundai car plant was caught employing dozens of undocumented children, Hyundai decided to shut down the plant causing hundreds of union jobs to be lost. The United Auto Workers released a statement, saying:

“The picture emerging is of low-road labor practices in search of cheap labor at all costs. This hurts the workers being exploited but it also hurts workers throughout the industry whose standing and bargaining power is undercut by these illegal practices.”

Its longstanding position has been to create a pathway to citizenship for immigrant workers and to strengthen enforcement of labor laws. But without calling for repeal of the employers’ sanctions provision, which criminalizes undocumented workers for working, the employers will continue to divide and undercut all workers. This time- even super-exploiting an underclass of immigrant children in this country. 

Hyundai first built its factories in Montgomery Alabama in 2005, with a launching party including former president George  H.W. Bush giving a speech and a rendition of the song “Oh Susanna,” singing, “I came to Alabama with a banjo on my knee.” 

Shortly after the founding of Hyundai’s first plant in the Alabama capital, another plant just outside the town of Luverne Alabama opened. The town expected the plant in Luverne to bring in union jobs and economic prosperity to the local people after Hyundai’s plant in Montgomery created 3,000 jobs. However, this failed to materialize and residents fled Luverne to seek better job opportunities over the last 18 years. Across Alabama, union membership has decreased by 3.5 percent in the past 10 years. 

The promise of good jobs for Luverne Alabama slid further into the horizon when jobs started to be given to immigrant children awaiting their immigration trials. When the news about child laborer practices was released by Reuters in 2022 from former whistleblowing workers, UAW was asleep at the wheel exclaiming that they had no idea about the child laborers. UAW focused solely on their members, losing sight of the big picture of overall working conditions which were being deteriorated by the hyper-exploitation of child workers. Perhaps, the former workers who blew the whistle on underage immigrant children were doing so out of resentment, rather than attempting an organizing effort. The workers at the plant needed to work together with the children in order to regulate working conditions rather than either, paying no attention to the issue, or, taking out their feelings of resentment on the children. Daring to organize is the name of the game here, the children are being exploited in order to exploit the workers at the factory. Both groups ended up losing out when the factory shut down. 

The failure of UAW to understand or see the big picture of overall deteriorating working conditions and effects of hyper-exploitation through the employer sanctions’ provision are clear when comparing the wages given to workers versus the child laborers. According to Zippia, the median wage of a worker at a Hyundai Plant in Alabama in 2022 is $52,191. Immigrant children were paid $11 per hour to work late shifts on the assembly line, welding metal, and driving forklifts, much less than what other workers would normally get. Hyundai can squeeze much more profit out of their company if they have children working the jobs in the factory by paying children $11 an hour rather than the average $52,191 a year. 

Child Hiring practices started a couple of years prior to 2021, with Hyundai profiting around $1 billion a year during that same time. Hyundai peaked in profits in 2022 gaining $1.5 billion in profit. With insane profit margins being increased year by year in Alabama, helped by hiring children to work for little pay and no benefits, Hyundai also received state tax subsidies. In 2002 $252 million was given to Hyundai by Alabama to bring the company to the state, with another $59 million subsidy to keep the company in Alabama in 2018. Hyundai increased the company’s profit margin by taking advantage of migrant children more susceptible to unlawful work conditions, took state subsidies to keep their factories running in Alabama, and undercut local workers in Luverne by taking $52,191 yearly salary jobs and instead paying $11 an hour to kids. The potential good union jobs promised in 2005 became child laborer jobs, and after workers whistle blew on the malpractice possibly due to resentment, have led these same jobs to cease to exist. 

Like many employers who state there is a shortage of workers, rather than a shortage of workers willing to work in sweatshop conditions, Hyundai blamed the child-hiring practices on a third-party recruiter, saying, no one wanted to work the jobs except the children

Organized labor will continue to shoot themselves in the foot if we fail to unite both immigrant and native-born workers together to repeal the law that criminalizes undocumented labor and makes them a target for employers to undercut native-born workers. The only way to really enforce our labor laws is to repeal the employers’ sanctions provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act so that all workers have the equal right to organize for better working conditions.