chlid labor

Last Fall, I wrote about a Labor Department injunction 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 suffered chemical burns from the corrosive cleaners they were required to use. Most were Latino and did not speak English.

It turns out that was the the tip of the iceberg.

The children were working with hazardous chemicals and cleaning meat processing equipment including back saws, brisket saws and head splitters.

This morning the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division found that PSSI had employed at least 102 children – from 13 to 17 years of age – in hazardous occupations and had them working overnight shifts at 13 meat processing facilities in eight states. As a result, PSSI has paid $1.5 million in civil money penalties.  The children were working with hazardous chemicals and cleaning meat processing equipment including back saws, brisket saws and head splitters. At least three minors suffered injuries while working for PSSI, one of the country’s largest food safety sanitation service providers.

And the violations were not just isolated “oops” in a couple of locations:

“The child labor violations in this case were systemic and reached across eight states, and clearly indicate a corporate-wide failure by Packers Sanitation Services at all levels,” explained Principal Deputy Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division Jessica Looman. “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.”

Children were found working in 13 meatpacking plants in 8 states. A Cargill plant in Dodge City, Kansas, and JBS Foods plants in Grand Island, Nebraska and Worthington, Minnesota with more than 20 each. Other states were Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Tennessee and Texas.  In addition to Cargill and JBS, children were working for PSSI at plants owned by Tyson Food, George’s Inc, Buckhead Meat of Minnesota, Gibbon Packing Co, Greater Omaha Packing Co Inc, Maple Leaf Farms and Turkey Valley Farms.

PSSI Was Pleased to Resolve the Issue

PSSI was shocked, SHOCKED that they had children on their payroll:

“We are pleased to have finalized this settlement figure as part of our previously announced December resolution with the Department of Labor that ends their inquiry,” said Gina Swenson, a Packers spokesperson. “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 DOL’s objective of ensuring full compliance at all locations.”

Wage and Hour was not quite convinced of PSSI’s sincerity:

“Our investigation found Packers Sanitation Services’ systems flagged some young workers as minors, but the company ignored the flags. When the Wage and Hour Division arrived with warrants, the adults – who had recruited, hired and supervised these children – tried to derail our efforts to investigate their employment practices,” said Wage and Hour Regional Administrator Michael Lazzeri in Chicago.

The department assessed penalties of $15,138 for each minor-aged employee who was employed in violation of the law. the maximum penalties allowed under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Clearly, the financial penalties will have virtually no impact on the companies’ bottom line, but they generally don’t like the stigma of being child abusers.

Clearly, the financial penalties will have virtually no impact on the companies’ bottom line, but they generally don’t like the stigma of being child abusers.

“The Department of Labor has made it absolutely clear that violations of child labor laws will not be tolerated,” said Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda. “No child should ever be subject to the conditions found in this investigation. The courts have upheld the department’s rightful authority to execute federal court-approved search warrants and compelled this employer to change their hiring practices to ensure compliance with the law. Let this case be a powerful reminder that all workers in the United States are entitled to the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act and that an employer who violates wage laws will be held accountable.”

The Trend: More Child Labor

Child labor violations have risen sharply over the past several years.

The Department of Labor has seen a 50% increase in child labor violations since 2018, Loomans says, but it’s unclear if that rise is because more companies are employing children or because there have been more investigations of these companies. DOL data shows that it found 3,876 minors employed in violation of the law in 2022, a 68% increase from 2018. But that number still pales in comparison to 2002, when it found 9,690 children employed illegally.

That said, DOL has been uncovering more and more violations in the past five years. For example, the agency has found that more children are working longer hours than they are permitted by law, Looman says, and that there are more minors working in dangerous occupations that are supposed to be off limits for children. In 2022, there were 688 minors employed in violation of the Labor Department’s Hazardous Occupations Orders, which prevent 16- and 17-year-olds from working in jobs like coal mining, slaughtering meat, and roofing, according to DOL data. That’s the most since 2011.

The Department of Labor is also investigating child labor and trafficking networks in Hyundae auto parts suppliers in Alabama. Some children were not even in their teens

A Reuters investigation revealed the use of child workers, one as young as 12, by SMART Alabama, a Hyundai subsidiary in the south Alabama town of Luverne. In August, the U.S. Department of Labor said SL Alabama LLC, another Hyundai supplier and a unit of South Korea’s SL Corp., employed underage workers, including a 13-year-old, at its factory in Alexander City.

Why is this happening. Business association cite labor shortages. In addition,

Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, believes that the increase in child labor is related to the impunity with which big corporations operate in today’s economy. As companies consolidate and grow, she says, they are worth so much money that some find it easier to violate laws and pay minimal fines than to comply with laws. “They just figure it’s the cost of doing business,” she says. PSSI, for example, paid investors a $297 million dividend in 2020, which dwarfs the amount of its $1.5 million fine.

Solution to Child Labor Violations: More Child Labor?

While most Americans will applaud the Labor Department’s actions, some business associations and state legislators, caving into business concerns about labor shortages, see the Labor Department’s action as a step in the wrong direction.

1The Iowa bill does employers and additional favor by relieving them of liability for children who might get injured or killed on the job. And any injuries or deaths wouldn’t be covered by workers compensation.

All that makes the under-16 workforce look pretty attractive to a company’s bottom line.

Anyway, business leaders argue, work builds character and creates good work habits to toughen children up, make them responsible individuals and prepare them for adulthood.

That may be true for some jobs, but we’re not talking about babysitting, packing groceries or scooping ice cream. Experts in child development warn:

Skills earned in menial jobs like janitorial work or manufacturing are rarely transferrable. Meanwhile, a study by UW researcher Kathryn Monahan has shown working long hours while attending high school can have negative academic and behavioral impacts on teenagers, while social critics have decried the shift in policy as a sign of the fragility of the nation’s economic system as more U.S. adults are unwilling to accept low-paying, high-stress employment in manufacturing and food processing amid labor disputes in states like South Dakota.

“Those notions that children were untouchable and any changes in the future would have to maintain the dignity of a childhood unspoiled are make-believe,” author Jared Yates Sexton wrote in a Wednesday column criticizing the trend. “Children are abused, exploited, and forgotten constantly in this country, and continuing to peddle these stories that they aren’t or couldn’t be is just far too dangerous.”


5 thoughts on “Labor Department Cracks Down on Child Labor”
  1. Do you think the rise in child labor has anything to do with the U.S. opening it’s boarders to everyone who wants to come into the country?
    You should send this to your buddies in the White House and let them know about these stats too!

    1. Just the opposite. If we actually had more open borders and a better immigration system, we wouldn’t have such a sever labor shortage.

  2. Here’s some research for you to consider Mr Barab…

    Blackstone Group is a big backer of PSSI…,Group%20bought%20PSSI%20in%202018.

    …and who is invested in the Blackstone Group? Looks like the Vanguard Group.

    …and what government entities use the The Vanguard Group to build wealth for its employees? Looks like the US Dept of Labor.

    If I am wrong about any of this someone please correct me. But if I am correct, isn’t it ironic if some of the very people pointing the finger at companies like PSSI have some money in their retirement accounts today that came off the backs of children and immigrants.

    I’d love to see you write about a group of government employees who discovered that a portion of their retirement accounts was the indirect result of supporting companies like PSSI and said employees banded together to start an organization funded by that money to give back to children and other laborers that are/were victims of the system.

    We all know that will never happen. It’s easier to blame executives than to take personal responsibility of that which is under our direct control. I practice what I preach, even though it has meant less money for my retirement.

  3. The record of companies hidden within pension investment portfolios is likely a story unto itself and probably worthy of more investigation. That being said, the DOL document you link to is simply a Vanguard comment on a pending EBSA regulation. EBSA, or the Employee Benefits Security Administration, oversees the integrity of pensions and fiduciary duties of investment companies. It doesn’t mean that government entities are use the The Vanguard Group to build wealth for its employees.

    1. Thank you for clarifying that. I’ll ask a similar question that I have asked in the past. Exactly who is PSSI? Is it the CEO? the entire C suite? all senior managers? all salaried employees? the co-workers who knew children were doing this and said nothing?

      How about the parents who knowingly allowed their children to work these jobs? Should they be sentenced? It is well known what PSSI does and that the vast majority of their workforce is Latino. So, are investors free of all responsibility?

      And how about the companies who contracted PSSI? At what level are those companies responsible? Is it just senior managers wanting to get rich s they can minimize their headcount? Or how about the supervisors at those companies who surely saw this going on but knew if they said something that they themselves may end up having to do this work?

      FYI. I worked in a 1000+ employee poultry plant and PSSI was contracted there, so I have some first-hand knowledge. There is likely responsibility and people benefitting in some way or form at all levels, including shareholders. If we could wave a wand and instantaneously make the PSSI’s of the world go away but it would cause food prices in the US to double and stock dividends to be cut in half, would Americans sign off on the deal? I think not. Anyone in industry today knows what is going on. I could count on my hands how many hourly “White” workers there were in that poultry plant I worked. We ran jobs fairs and not one White person would show up. Yet we shame the senior managers of that plant for abusing these poor immigrants while we stuff our mouths with cheap protein…protein produced at that plant instead of from a local farmer that charges twice as much. I never saw a protest or questioning over labor conditions in the facility by locals. Give me my cheap meat and a fat IRA and don’t tell me about how I got it.

      “They” aren’t the problem. “We” are the problem. Corporations are just a big pile of money and everyone is trying to get a piece. as Ice T once said in a rap song “Don’t hate the player hate the game.” In other words, you can hate on the fat cats running these companies, but all of us are part of the system and benefit in some way. All we can do to truly make a difference is focus on what we as individuals can do to make the system better. But some would rather make a living out of pointing their fingers. And we complain why kids want to blame others for their problems. Blaming “the man” gets us nowhere except feeling better about ourselves and our own shortcomings.

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