Child labor

School-age children working all night — and getting injured — in some of the most hazardous workplaces in the country. Workplaces that are owned by companies whose goals are to cut costs to the bone to pay higher dividends to their owners. Companies that have a long history of worker deaths, amputations, decapitations and asphyxiations.

If you were a student of the history of working conditions, you might guess that I’m describing something out of a Charles Dickens novel, or maybe a Jacob Riis book or photo from the late 1800s, or Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle.

But you would be wrong.

I’m summarizing a Labor Department injunction filed in federal court last week against Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI) for illegally employing 31 children between the ages of 13 and 17 in at least three meatpacking plants where the PSSI is contracted to clean and sanitize. The school children worked on overnight shifts and several of whom suffered chemical burns from the corrosive cleaners they were required to use. Most were Latino and did not speak English.

The court swiftly granted the injunction.

One child who was 13 when they started working for PSSI reported sustaining chemical burns from the cleaning materials used at the JBS plant, according to court records.

According to interviews with the children at the Grand Island, Nebraska plant.

One child who was 13 when they started working for PSSI reported sustaining chemical burns from the cleaning materials used at the JBS plant, according to court records.

Another child who was 14 when they started working for PSSI, said they cleaned machinery used to cut meat during overnight work shifts. The child also suffered injuries from chemical burns.

Another 17 year old reported working overnight shifts longer than six hours about six or seven days a week, cleaning machines on the kill floor by hand.

And the problem was apparently no secret.

An investigator spoke to school officials at Walnut Middle School and Grand Island High School who said it was “common knowledge” that school children worked at JBS and they were concerned about the students working at the plant, in part because the students came to school tired from working overnight shifts.

Packers does not process meat. It is a “food safety” cleaning and sanitation company contracted by large meat and poultry processing plants to clean and sanitize the plants to get them ready for the next morning’s shifts. The plants that contracted to PSSI in this case are owned by Turkey Valley Farms plant in Marshall, Minn. and JBS USA plants in Grand Island, Nebraska, and Worthington, Minnesota The Department is looking into other plants across the country as well, including a Tyson Foods plant in Sedalia, Missouri.

Packers denied the allegations, and claimed it was SHOCKED because the company had been cooperating with WHD.

A PSSI spokesperson said in a statement to Insider Thursday that it has a “zero tolerance” policy around hiring employees under 18.

“PSSI has an absolute company-wide prohibition against the employment of anyone under the age of 18 and zero tolerance for any violation of that policy — period,” the statement read.  The company verifies employees thoroughly with “document verification, biometrics, and multiple layers of audits.”

And in an apparent attempt to blame the victims, the company stated that “While rogue individuals could of course seek to engage in fraud or identity theft, we are confident in our company’s strict compliance policies and will defend ourselves vigorously against these claims.”

The companies that contracted to PSSI were also “shocked.”

In a statement, Turkey Valley Farms said that it was taking the allegations “very seriously” and that it was “reviewing the matter internally.”

“We expect all contractors to share our commitment to the health and safety of any individuals working in our facilities and to adhere to these principles that foster a safe work environment as well as to all applicable federal and state labor laws,” the company said. It added that it would “take all appropriate action” based on the outcome of the Labor Department’s investigation.

JBS’s chief ethics and compliance officer Michael Koenig, insisted that

The company took the allegations against PSSI seriously and, if true, would represent a violation of the meat company’s ethics policies.

“We are immediately launching an independent, third-party audit at all of our facilities to thoroughly evaluate this situation,” Koenig said in a statement. “JBS has zero tolerance for child labor, discrimination or unsafe working conditions for anyone working in our facilities. We expect and contractually require our partners to adhere to the highest ethical principles as outlined in our Business Associate Code of Conduct.”

Child Labor

Child labor is supposedly a thing of the past, and there are strict rules under the Fair Labor Standards Act, restricting employment of minors. “Federal laws were established decades ago to prevent employers from profiting by putting children in harm’s way,” according to Michael Lazzeri, the regional administrator in the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD).

Child labor rules prohibit minors under the age of 14 from working and prohibit 14- and 15-year-olds from working later than 9 p.m. over the summer and past 7 p.m. during the school year. They are also prohibited from working more than three hours on school days, more than eight hours on non-school days and more than 18 hours per week. Minors cannot operate motor vehicles, forklifts or other hazardous equipment.

The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, which enforces child labor regulations, also accused PSSI managers and supervisors of attempting “to thwart or tamper with the collection of evidence in multiple ways” including warning WHD Investigators not to take pictures and videos and to delete any photos or video collected. Managers also attempted to obstruct employee interviews and tried to hide or delete documents.

What is Packers Sanitation?

Packers Sanitation is not actually a poultry processor or meat packer. It is a company contracted by the major meat and poultry processors to work the “Third Shift” — overnight to clean the killing floors and processing areas of the plants. The work is highly hazardous, involving machinery that can (and does) amputate limbs and decapitate workers, hazardous chemicals that can cause serious chemical burns and asphyxiations, slippery surfaces and high heights that can lead to fatal falls, confined spaces where workers can be trapped and asphyxiated, equipment that can cause electrocutions, cold and wet conditions and poorly marked or blocked exits that can trap workers in deadly fires and hazardous chemical releases.

The company cleans 700 food processing facilities nationwide and employs about 17,000 workers.

Ironically, Packers, with one the worst worker safety records in the country, prides itself as a “safety” company, or more precisely, a “food safety” company — cleaning hundreds of slaughtering and meatpacking plants across the country so that the meat and poultry you enjoy isn’t contaminated.

Unbelievably, Packers also boasts of its commitment “to the health and safety of our team members.”   In fact, the company claims that worker safety is one of the leading reasons that food companies should contract out to companies like Packers

Unbelievably, Packers also boasts of its commitment “to the health and safety of our team members.”   In fact, the company claims that worker safety is one of the leading reasons that food companies should contract out to companies like Packers. Its webpage highlights its focus on worker safety:

SAFETY RISKS

Employee safety is one of the most important elements associated with sanitation across the food industry. Without the right planning, training, and day to day management of sanitation teams it can lead to extremely negative outcomes. Accidents and violations are not only a brand reputation and operations issue but can also be a significant financial burden.

Outsourcing sanitation to a provider with skilled, well-trained sanitors and 24/7 management oversight can not only minimize accidents, but also take the liability and risk off your facility’s record.

Why is PCCI’s commitment to worker safety unbelievable?

PSSI has a long and grisly history of killing, injuring and endangering workers.  A couple of examples explain the problem.

One of the most prominent incidents were the 2021 deaths of 6 workers at Foundation Food Group, a Georgia poultry processing plant, resulting from a nitrogen leak. Three other companies, including Foundation Food Group, were also cited. The violations cited by OSHA against PSSI included failure to:

  • Train workers on the emergency procedures related to liquid nitrogen and anhydrous ammonia, and provide workers with access to the data sheet on liquid nitrogen.
  • Ensure egress paths were unobstructed.
  • Ensure exit signs were illuminated, and provide adequate lighting for exit routes.
  • Implement a written permit space entry program.
  • Make sure that adequate lockout procedures were used.
  • Coordinate lockout procedures with Foundation Food Group (which owned the plant.)

OSHA cited the employer in 2017 and 2018 for similar violations. The total penalty was $286,720. The company is contesting the citations.

On March 3, 2020, an employee at a plant in Eufaula, Alabama was decapitated while using a high pressure water hose to rinse a material conveyor augur that was still in operation. There were no guards preventing the employee from accessing the moving portion of the augur. OSHA fined the company for $57,834 for violating the OSHA Lockout standard. The company reached a settlement with OSHA and ended up paying only $26,988.

On October 25, 2019, a poultry processing plant worker was killed when he was caught between an auger blade and the chiller wall. OSHA initially fined the company $149,000, including two willful violations for lockout-tagout and fall protection. The willful violations were later converted to “serious” and the penalties were raised from $149,000 to $215,000. (Because of the stigma — and possible loss of contracts — that often accompanies willful violations, companies often offer to pay a higher penalty in return for dropping the “willful” designation.  During the Obama administration, this practice was severely limited.)

These are only a small number of examples of the many OSHA citations the company has received over the past several years. In 2017, a National Employment Law Project study performed by former OSHA official Debbie Berkowitz, found that Packers Sanitation Services had the 14th highest number of severe injuries reported to OSHA over the previous two years. OSHA’s Severe Injury Reporting rule requires employers to report to OSHA every fatality, hospitalization, amputation and loss of an eye.

What Are The Problems?

This is not just an isolated story of an individual rogue company that exploits its workers. We’re looking at a much deeper and more profound national problem with several root causes and other systemic issues.

Hazardous Workplaces

The most obvious problem is that the “Third Shift” is highly hazardous, involving dangerous machinery, hazardous chemicals, electrical hazards, temperature extremes and the risk of slips, trips and falls. None of these hazards are new or unknown; all are preventable and covered by well-recognized OSHA standards. One worker described what it’s like to work the overnight cleaning shift:

They were forced to work at punishing speeds in ankle-deep water with floating fat and chicken guts. They were enclosed in poorly ventilated rooms with chlorinated cleaning products wafting in the air, severely limited in bathroom and water breaks. The chemical vapor caused heart-pounding insomnia, Miguel says. Several workers had to seek medical help. Workers who didn’t keep up the pace were moved to an extremely cold area of the plant as punishment.

Underfunded Weak Worker Protection Agencies

The agency tasked with enforcing safety and health rules for 130 million workers in the country’s 8 million workplaces is the tiny Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA’s annual budget is just over $600 million, a small freckle on the nose of the federal budget. By comparison, the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency is near $9 billion per year. The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which enforces fair wages and child labor (among other issues) is also tiny and underfunded with a $251 million annual budget.

Underfunding is especially harmful for….

Vulnerable Workers

Vulnerable workers are those who desperately need jobs to provide food and shelter for themselves and their families and have very little power to fight back against wage theft or unsafe working conditions. Most of these workers are immigrants, many of whom are undocumented and therefore reluctant to complain to their employer about unsafe conditions or wage theft, or file complaints with OSHA or WHD — even if they knew that was possible or how to do it. And no worker is more vulnerable than a child — especially an immigrant child.

To make matters worse….

The Decline of Unions

Most workers in the “sanitation” industry are not organized into unions. Anyone familiar with workers and working conditions in this country understands that strong labor unions are workers best — and sometimes only — defense against exploitation and unsafe working conditions. Another truth is that unionization has declined sharply in this country over the past 40 years — especially in the meat processing industry.

Exacerbating all of the above problems is…

The Fissured Workplace

According to former Wage and Hour administrator David Weil, large corporations have shed their role as direct employers of the people responsible for their products.  Instead they are increasingly outsourcing work to small companies. And by outsourcing work, they’re also attempting to cut costs by outsourcing their responsibility to comply with labor laws and provide decent wages and benefits. And a bonus, they also shed unions by outsourcing to non-union companies.

By outsourcing work, companies are also attempting to cut costs by outsourcing their responsibility to comply with labor laws and provide decent wages and benefits. And a bonus, they also shed unions by outsourcing to non-union companies.

Making the situation worse is that these companies compete fiercely with each other over that attractiveness of their contracts, pushing wages, benefits and working conditions lower and lower in a race to the bottom. The result has been declining wages, eroding benefits, fewer health and safety protections, and ever-widening income inequality. (If you haven’t done so yet, purchase — or borrow — and read Weil’s book The Fissured Workplace for more information on the changing structure of the American workplace and its effect on workers.)

OSHA has attempted, with some success, to address the health and safety part of this problem by holding both employers and the contractors they hire by holding all parties responsible for hazardous conditions but there are always legal hurdles with every company and subcontractor trying to shift the blame to others. (More on the Fissured Workplace here.)

Making these problem even worse are…

Highly Leveraged Private Equity Companies

According to the Private Equity Stakeholder Project’s recent report, Profit Over Safety: Private Equity’s Leveraged Bet on Packers Sanitation, for its first 34 years, PSSI was privately owned, changing hands between individual owners and smaller investment groups. Since 2007, PSSI has been through a succession of private equity owners. Leonard Green & Partners and AlpInvest Partners purchased PSSI in 2014, and the Blackstone Group bought PSSI in 2018.  What’s the problem?

Private equity firms have often taken a low road approach and sought to reduce wages, benefits, and staffing at firms they acquire – with devastating consequences to millions of workers, their families, and their entire communities. The industry manages nearly $7.4 trillion in assets and owns companies that employ more than 11.7 million American workers, plus millions more around the world.

Blackstone and Leonard Green/AlpInvest extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from PSSI through transactions known as dividend recapitalizations, in which the private equity firms added debt to Packers
Sanitation’s balance sheet in order to collect dividends for themselves.

In other words, the goal of private equity companies like Blackstone is not to ensure safe food (or safe workers) or even to make the company profitable.  The goal is to reward owners and investors by increasing the company’s debt in order extract money to pay large dividends to shareholders.

Why is this a problem?

A Bloomberg Business article titled “America’s Worst Graveyard Shift is Grinding Up Workers,” describes how aggressive profit-taking and highly leveraged companies affects worker safety. Dr. David Michaels, who headed OSHA during the Obama Administration, warns that big debt is a potential red and asks “Are they reducing the costs to pay debt by pressuring workers to work faster? That’s a common danger with highly leveraged companies.”

What Is To Be Done?

This is the United States — in the 21st century. Thing like this should not be happening, and would not be happening if Republicans and corporate America didn’t still largely control the laws and agency budgets that are supposed to oversee and prevent exploitation of workers, and children.

Increase Agency Funding

Clearly the biggest deterrent to exploitation of workers is the fear of enforcement. In addition, cases like this require significant resources for the investigation. But the likelihood of enforcement and case development depends on the size and resources of the enforcement agencies. Wage & Hour estimates that investigators will need to review the digital equivalent of approximately 100,000,000 pages of records for the 50 PSSI sites it’s investigating.  Significantly improved funding of OSHA and Wage & Hour are obvious solutions. As David Weil tweeted, “Anyone who believes that we don’t need vigorous, well resourced and robust enforcement to protect workers should read this.”

This is the United States — in the 21st century. Thing like this should not be happening, and would not be happening if Republicans and corporate America didn’t still largely control the laws and agency budgets that are supposed to oversee and prevent exploitation of workers, and children.

Mandate Corporate Responsibility

As former OSHA official Debbie Berkowitz tweeted, “The meatpacking industry and its contractors must be held accountable. ” The contracting companies, not just PSSI — in this case JBS and Turkey Valley Farms — must also be held accountable for the actions of their contractors, criminally responsible in some cases. It’s not enough to just “expect” your contractors to comply with the law.  The big companies accountable for the actions of their contractors, and if there are legal problems, then the laws must be strengthened to require companies to ensure that their contractors comply with the law.

Educate and Empower Vulnerable Workers

Funding for OSHA and W&H outreach to vulnerable workers must also be increased so that they understand the hazards they are facing, and what the law enables them to do about it. Anti-retaliation measures also need to be beefed up. OSHA’s anti-discrimination language is particularly weak and could be strengthened by passage of the Protecting America’s Workers Act. OSHA’s Susan Harwood Training Grant program dedicates much of its funding to groups that educate vulnerable workers about the hazards they face and what can be done. But the program’s roughly $10 million budget has not increased since it was created in the late 1970s, and $10 million doesn’t buy what it used to. OSHA funds its small business Onsite Consultation Program at $63 million by comparison.

Build Unions

And finally, of course, strong unions with empowered and educated members would make this kind of exploitation impossible. Congress needs to pass — and the President needs to sign — the
Protecting the Right to Organize Act (or PRO Act) which would expand various labor protections related to employees’ rights to organize and collectively bargain in the workplace.

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