Following an in-depth New York Times report, the U.S. Department of Labor has launched child labor investigations into two companies, Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms. The NYT report described the dangerous conditions under which the children were reported to be working, stating that some of the children were as young as 13. The investigation into Tyson and Perdue has also extended to QSI and Fayette Industrial, which are companies that help run the cleaning shifts for the meat processing plants.
Investigation into Tyson and Perdue’s Use of Child Labor
The report stated that the meat processing industry presents some of the most dangerous working conditions and despite the demanding nature of the work, migrant children were being employed to clean the slaughterhouses. In the past, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that the rate of injuries and illnesses in the animal slaughtering and processing industry was higher than in other manufacturing and private industries. The child labor investigations were launched due to claims that contractors linked to these two companies were employing children under unsafe conditions, making them work overnight shifts at plants in Virginia.
Both companies have denied any knowledge of these child labor practices. As it is common practice for these meat processing plants to have sanitation companies come in to take care of the cleaning, some have wondered if accountability should mainly be focused on the contractors doing the hiring.
The NYT uncovered the illegal child labor practices during their investigation into one of the children who were seriously injured while working at a Perdue plant. The investigation into Tyson and Perdue is far from the only recent report on companies flouting child labor rules to employ them to do the dirty work.
Other Recent Child Labor Investigations
Earlier this year, the US Labor Department investigated and fined Packers Sanitation Services Incorporated (PSSI) for their violation of child labor laws. Similar to the investigation into Tyson and Perdue, the plant that was investigated was owned by large-scale beef supplier JBS, and the company reported having no knowledge of the labor violations. The sanitation company was held accountable instead.
PSSI was fined $1.5 million for the illegal employment of over 100 teenagers across a variety of meat packing plants, according to Reuters. The company replaced its CEO and started a $10 million fund to tackle child labor practices across the country, but it is clear that the real problems go beyond the illegal, inhuman practices of just one company.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been looking into the death of a 16-year-old who worked at the Mar-Jac Poultry MS LLC plant in Hattiesburg, investigating safety concerns at the plant. The report comes as another example of young workers in hazardous conditions.
Why are Child Labor Practices Worsening in the Food Sector?
The investigation into Tyson and Perdue might result in a few fines, but the actual problem is unlikely to resolve itself with active action. The U.S. administration sent letters to meatpacking plants across the country to review their labor force and strictly enforce improved labor practices. The Labor Department reported that illegal child labor has risen by 69 percent since 2018.
Labor laws allow children in states like Massachusetts, to work after they turn 14, however dangerous jobs such as in meat processing plants are not included. 16-year-olds are allowed to work up to 48 hours a week, and a bill was recently introduced to allow them to work in the logging industry, which is another extremely dangerous field.
With the labor shortage affecting the markets, many states are attempting to roll back regulations even further to bring more children into the workforce. According to the Boston Globe, Iowa has chosen to allow 14-year-olds to work in meat coolers and Minnesota will allow 16-year-olds onto construction sites. The article also reported the unsafe conditions involved in the fishing industry and stated that Americans no longer want to work there due to safety concerns. As a result, children immigrating into the country manage to find work there.
“…Nina Mast, an economic analyst at Earn and co-author of the EPI report, noted bills have been introduced in Maine and Virginia to create a sub-minimum wage for workers aged 14 to 17 years old. A bill in Georgia was proposed but failed this year to eliminate work youth permits.” According to The Guardian.
A lot of the workers in these plants are undocumented immigrants looking to make a living. As a result, such unsafe working conditions go unreported as workers and their families attempt to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Contractors, on the other hand, get away with paying them low wages and putting them into dangerous working conditions without looking too hard at their documentation. The U.S. has seen a surge in the number of unaccompanied minors arriving in the country. The family who might have arrived earlier often choose to sponsor them, but they are usually stuck under difficult living conditions of their own.
Child labor investigations are only the start of understanding and tackling the problem. While the investigation into Tyson and Perdue might bring attention to the situation, the move toward including more children in the labor force has pushed for change in the opposite direction. The New York Times highlighted that while the Labor Department has a shortage of inspectors, the Agriculture Department is retraining its food safety inspectors to report on evidence of labor law violations so child labor investigations can take place more efficiently. This serves as one step to unraveling a much larger problem.