Senate probes firms after ‘hazardous’ child labour accusations

14 April 2023

Senators in the US are demanding information from retailers and their suppliers following accusations that migrant children have been illegally working in unsafe conditions.

Firms including General Mills, PepsiCo, Walmart, Target, Ford, Ben & Jerry’s, Packers Sanitation Services Inc (PPSI), and Hyundai have been ordered by Senators to provide information on potential child labour instances in their own and their suppliers’ operations. 

The request follows an investigation by the Department of Labor which found 102 children were illegally employed in dangerous jobs at PSSI, which provides cleaning services to some of the country’s largest meat and poultry producers. 

The incident at PSSI led to a wider investigation of potential migrant child labour at factories in the US, and prompted to contact several firms for clarification.  

Senators John Hickenlooper (Democrat) and Alex Padilla (Democrat) wrote to the CEOs of 27 major companies suspected of wrongdoing, and insisted they carefully examine hiring procedures, workplace safety requirements, and compliance with wage and hour laws.

The senators wrote that according to the Department of Labor and an investigation into factory conditions used by the firms conducted by the New York Times, “migrant children have been working at your facilities in hazardous conditions, engaged in work that is not suitable for their age group, and working hours well beyond what is permitted by law. 

“Your staff must be trained, and retrained if necessary, on federal and state child labor laws to ensure that children are not being placed in harm’s way, and employees must have the opportunity to report unfair labor practices without risk or fear of retaliation.”

They further requested details of steps the companies have taken to ensure compliance with child labour laws at their workplaces and those of their suppliers. They also demanded details on how third-party contractors were audited to ensure labour compliance. 

An investigation by the Department of Labor found that PSSI had employed minors on overnight shifts to use “hazardous” and “caustic” chemicals to clean “razor-sharp” saws and other high-risk equipment. 

The children, who ranged from between 13 to 17, were working overnight shifts at 13 meat processing facilities across eight states in the US, and at least three had sustained injuries due to the work. 

PSSI was forced to pay $1.5m in fines – $15,138 for each employee, the maximum penalty permitted under federal law. The violations were described as “systemic” by Jessica Looman, the principal deputy administrator of the wage and hour division. She said the acts “clearly indicate a corporate-wide failure by PSSI at all levels”.

She added: “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.”

Following the investigation, the Department for Labour announced it was creating a joint task force alongside the Department Health and Human Services to mandating follow-up calls for unaccompanied children who report safety concerns.

Violations of child labour laws are on the rise in the US, with violation up 69% since 2018, according to The Department of Labor.

In a separate case in October, Hyundai – another organisation to receive letters from the senators – launched an investigation after one of its US suppliers was fined for child labour.

The supplier and its staffing company were fined $17,800 each after three children were found working at the factory.

The Department of Labor obtained a court order to stop the manufacturer from employing 13 to 15-year-olds illegally, and to prevent the company from shipping or delivering any goods produced in violation of federal child labour laws.

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