A U.S. Department of Labor investigation found that one of the country’s largest food sanitation service providers illegally employed children to clean meatpacking plants on overnight shifts, resulting in a $1.5 million penalty.
Wisconsin-based Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI) was employing at least 102 minors aged between 13 and 17 to work with hazardous chemicals and clean “dangerous powered equipment,” including back saws, brisket saws, and head splitters, reported a Department of Labor news release.
The investigation began in August 2022 and found that child labor violations were spread across eight states at 13 meatpacking plants where Packers operates — Minnesota, Indiana, Colorado, Tennessee, Texas, Nebraska, Arkansas, and Kansas.
Most violations came from the JBS Foods beef plant in Nebraska that employed 27 children. It was followed by a Cargill meat-processing facility in Kansas that employed 26 children.
Apart from working overnight shifts, at least three children suffered burns from chemicals at the JBS plant in Nebraska.
“These children should never have been employed in meat packing plants and this can only happen when employers do not take responsibility to prevent child labor violations from occurring in the first place,” Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator of the Labor Department’s wage and hour division, told The Washington Post.
Why is this concerning?
Child labor violations have increased by about 70% since 2018, where minors are working more hours than permitted and using types of equipment they shouldn’t in otherwise legal jobs.
Experts attribute the rise in child labor violations to shifts in the enforcement of child labor laws and a tight labor market. As the national unemployment rate dipped to 3.4% in January, employers are looking at different labor pools to fill vacancies.
Labor department officials said that Packers ignored warnings about the employment of minors in their plants. According to The Washington Post, court records alleged that the company also deleted and manipulated employment records and intimidated children from sharing information with investigators.
What steps are being taken?
Following the $1.5 million settlement, Gina Swenson, a Packers spokesperson, said in a statement, “We have been crystal clear from the start: Our company has a zero-tolerance policy against employing anyone under the age of 18 and fully shares the [Labor Department’s] objective of ensuring full compliance at all locations.”
JBS Beef has terminated its contract with Packers and is working with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) to pilot in-house sanitation services at some of its facilities.
Marc Perrone, the union’s international president, told the Associated Press that the meatpacking industry should use its power over contractors like PSSI to end the exploitation of children for good.
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