Gerber’s Poultry, a poultry plant in Kidron, Ohio, which produces Amish Farm Chicken, is under investigation after federal agents found more than two dozen minors illegally employed in meat processing and sanitation.
“The discovery of yet another meat processing facility in the U.S. relying on child labor is the latest reminder of the harms that industrial animal agriculture inflicts at every turn, with the most vulnerable — children, people of color, immigrants, and nonhuman animals — paying the highest price,” Delcianna J. Winders, associate professor of Law at Vermont Law and Graduate School told Truthout.
The plant was raided on the evening of October 4 by Homeland Security Investigations and the Federal Bureau of Investigation agents following reports about the plant illegally employing children. A local resident told NBC News that the children, mainly from Guatemala, work the plant’s second shift after attending school during the day.
“For too long this industry has been given carte blanche to disregard laws,” Winders said. “Let’s hope this federal investigation is an indication that the government will begin to demand greater accountability across the industry.”
It is illegal under the Federal Code of Regulations and the Fair Labor Standards Act for anyone under the age of 18 to work in hazardous occupations, such as in meatpacking plants. Despite these labor protections for children, there has been a 69 percent rise in child labor in the United States since 2018 and recent data released by the Department of Labor (DOL) has found that child labor violations have risen to their highest level in nearly two decades. In fact, the DOL currently has more than 800 child labor investigations underway and has uncovered 5,792 minors working in violation of child labor laws in the past year.
“Finding just one child in harm’s way is one too many,” the DOL said in a statement. “This is an issue that affects all of us and as parents, caregivers, teachers, employers and community members, we cannot tolerate the exploitation of children.”
In February, the DOL found that more than 100 children — some as young as 13 years — employed by Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI) in hazardous jobs at meatpacking plants owned by companies, such as JBS Foods, Tyson Food Inc., and Cargill Inc.
“Make no mistake, this was no clerical error or actions of rogue individuals or bad managers,” Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator of DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, said at the news conference. “These findings represent a systemic failure across PSSI’s entire organization to ensure that children were not working in violation of the law.”
Multiple children in the past year have died of workplace injuries at meatpacking plants. Just three months ago, a 16-year-old boy died while working at a Mar-Jac Poultry plant in Mississippi. His death was not only the third to occur at the plant in just three years, it was also the third teenage death that summer caused by an industrial accident.
On October 16, Tyson Foods workers and youth labor activists rallied outside of the meat company’s headquarters in Arkansas to protest child labor in the industry and demand better working conditions in processing plants. Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms, two of the biggest poultry producers in the U.S., are currently under investigation by the DOL after reports that children have been working overnight shifts to clean the companies’ plants.
“Tyson keeps avoiding the subject by saying that they are not hiring directly the workers,” Magaly Licolli, an organizer of the rally and director of Venceremos, an organization that advocates for poultry workers in Arkansas, said.
In an attempt to circumvent the pressure from labor and youth advocates, as well as DOL investigations to ensure compliance with federal child labor laws, Republicans in Florida, Arkansas and Iowa are working to erode child labor protections at the state level.
“Cumulatively, the Republican Party is embracing policies that would take U.S. labor protections back to the early 20th century,” Sasha Abramsky wrote for Truthout. “The GOP, which, absurdly, still fashions itself as the party of good old-fashioned family values, as the pro-life and pro-child party, repeatedly embraces policies that hurt children, especially those who belong to low-income families.”
The right-wing think tank, the Foundation for Government Accountability, is behind a number of these child labor protection rollback bills. Many Republican legislators across the country have embraced these bills as an answer to current labor shortages in their states.
“With the modern GOP, the term ‘hypocrisy’ seems grotesquely inadequate to the needs of the moment in describing the unabashed political and ethical malfeasance animating the policy priorities of the ‘family values’ party,” Abramsky wrote.
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