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31 children have been found working in US meatpacking plants

Packers Sanitation Services Inc. has been accused of ‘oppressive child labour’ after children ages 13-17 were found cleaning warehouses overnight. 

The US Labor Department has sought an injunction against Packers Sanitation Services Inc. after 31 young children were found cleaning meatpacking plants across the Midwest.

Officials say the children were being forced to carry out illegal work – including the cleaning of dangerous industrial equipment – during night shifts.

According to the Labor Department, the children were aged between 13 and 17. Several of them had suffered severe chemical burns over the course of their shifts, many working up to 18 hours a week between 11pm and 5am.

As a result of the illegal labour, many were missing school or falling asleep in classes during the day.

When Labor Officials questioned those working at Walnut Middle School and Grand Island High School, where the children studied, they were told that it was ‘common knowledge’ that school children were working at Packers plant, namely because they came to school exhausted.

An investigation has been carried out in response to the Labor Department’s findings. Michael Lazzeri, a Chicago Labor Department Official, said of the findings; ‘Federal laws were established decades ago to prevent employers from profiting by putting children in harm’s way.’

Lazzeri also accused Packers of ‘taking advantage of children’ and ‘exposing them to workplace dangers’, behaviour that demonstrated a ‘flagrant disregard for the law and for the well-being of young workers’.

Since the pandemic, the US has suffered huge labour shortages, with at least 500,000 people permanently leaving the workforce.

This has driven US employers to seek out cheaper sources of labour, such as current or former convicts. Others, like Packers, are evidently turning to illegal and dangerous alternatives.

In the US, The Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) prohibits children under the age of 14 from working. It also prohibits children between 14 and 15-years-old from working past 9pm over the summer, and past 7pm during school terms.

Lazzeri has stated that Packers interfered ‘with a federal investigation’ by ‘intimidating minor workers to stop them from cooperating with investigators’. The company was also found to have ‘manipulated and deleted’ employment files to conceal the extent of child labour taking place.

All of the children who had been working at Packers Sanitation services spoke Spanish, and investigators carried out interviews in Spanish as most of the children couldn’t speak fluent English.

This highlights the ongoing oppressive labour practices within the meatpacking industry, which has been found to expose workers to dangerous conditions that result in injury and even death.

Many of these workers are often Black or Latino, and receive lax health and safety coverage from their employers.

During the pandemic, JBS foods – the meat processing company that covers JBS USA and Packers Sanitation Services – was accused of negligence and failure to protect predominantly Black and Latino workers from coronavirus.

The immigration status of the children working at Packers has not been disclosed.

‘The US Department of Labor is committed to ensure all workers in the United States are protected by federal laws such as the child labor law, regardless of immigration status’ said a Department spokesperson.

However, during interviews with the children, it was discovered that many had been working the meatpacking facility for over a year. One child was 14 when they started, having suffered chemical burns from the cleaning materials used.

Another had worked over 6 hour shifts up to 7 days a week, usually overnight, and would hand-clean the machines used to cut meat.

The company, however, denies any wrongdoing. ‘JBS has zero tolerance for child labor, discrimination or unsafe working conditions’ a company spokesperson has said.

JBS has absconded any responsibility by indicating that external partners and agencies are to blame for any child labour. ‘We expect and contractually require that our partners adhere to the highest ethical principles’.

Packers Sanitation has also suggested that the children themselves may have supplied false documentation, which potentially slipped through their ‘industry-leading’ procedures. ‘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 injunction against Packer’s is set for the 23rd November, where a Nebraska Judge will determine the future of the company and probe further claims that ‘many other’ students have been working illegally at JBS facilities.