Investigators discovered 31 children aged 13 to 17 years old who have been working for cleaning subcontractor Packers Sanitation Services (PSSI) at JBS plants in Grand Island, Nebraska, and Worthington, Minnesota, and at Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall, Minnesota.
According to officials, the teenagers go through overnight shifts cleaning “dangerous powered equipment” which led a 13-year-old and other underage employees to experience “caustic chemical burns.”
The Labor Department has requested the District Court in Nebraska to enforce a nationwide restraining order against PSSI to prevent them from “illegally employing dozens of minor-aged workers” as the investigation continues. (Related: Large food companies Kellogg’s, Nestle, Proctor & Gamble accused of profiting from child labor.)
PSSI may also be employing children in hazardous conditions “at its other 400 operations across the country,” according to court papers.
The cleaning company said it has an “absolute company-wide prohibition” against employing children, but that “rogue individuals” with fake IDs may have sneaked through the screening system.
Christine Heri, the regional solicitor of Labor in Chicago, said that the Labor Department will “hold to account those employers who mistakenly believe they can violate the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), obstruct federal investigations and retaliate against workers who assert their rights.”
Investigators zeroed in on PSSI in August after getting a tip that teenagers were employed at the three slaughterhouses. They completed warrants to gain entry to the plants and the company’s offices in Keiler, Wisconsin.
The department said it has found violations of the FLSA, which prevents children from working for more than three hours during school days, overnight, and from using motor vehicles, forklifts and other hazardous equipment.
The court papers also showed that the teenagers had to “perform hazardous work cleaning industrial power-driven slaughtering and meat processing equipment on the kill floors of meatpacking and slaughtering facilities in the middle of the night.”
The teenagers “cleaned machines with menacing names like Heavy Duty Head Splitter, the Dehorner and the Dominator Mixer/Grinder,” the court papers reported.
PSSI bars young workers from cooperating with government inspectors
Investigators said PSSI also barred its young workers from cooperating with government inspectors and “allegedly deleted and manipulated employment files.”
Michael Lazzeri, a Chicago-based labor department official, said labor protection laws were set up decades ago to “prevent employers from profiting by putting children in harm’s way.”
“Taking advantage of children, exposing them to workplace dangers – and interfering with a federal investigation – demonstrates Packers Sanitation Services’ flagrant disregard for the law and for the well-being of young workers,” Lazzeri stated.
A PSSI spokeswoman said the company has a “zero tolerance” against hiring teenagers and utilizes biometrics and “industry-leading” government-backed systems to verify the ages of new hires.
“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 spokeswoman added.
The company, which was founded in 1973, employs about 17,000 workers. It provides sanitation, chemical cleaning and pest control at around 700 slaughterhouses and food processing plants in the United States.
JBS, the world’s biggest meat-processing company, slaughters more than 13 million animals daily and earns $50 billion annually. The company stated on its website that it has “sound corporate governance and strong ethics.”
Turkey Valley Farms refused to comment on the issue.
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