A federal judge on Thursday granted a nationwide injunction against an industrial cleaning company, ordering the company to end its use of “oppressive child labor” after an investigation found it was employing dozens of children as young as 13 — some of whom were injured while working in meatpacking facilities.
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) requested the injunction in a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska after completing an investigation of Packers Sanitation Services, Inc. (PSSI) that began in late August.
The federal government had received a tip alleging that PSSI was illegally employing children and that they were working in hazardous conditions.
The complaint filed by the DOL alleges that the company has employed at least 31 children between the ages of 13 and 17, all of whom spoke Spanish. The children were working in meatpacking plants in Grand Island, Nebraska; Worthington, Minnesota; and Marshall, Minnesota. The plants were owned by JBS USA, a subsidiary of the largest meat processor in the world, and Turkey Valley Farms.
The DOL outlined numerous alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which prohibits companies from employing children under the age of 14. Children aged 14 and 15 cannot work past 7:00 pm during the school year or past 9:00 pm between June 1 and Labor Day, and cannot work more than 18 hours per week. All minors are also prohibited from operating hazardous equipment at work.
One child interviewed by DOL investigators reported that they worked for PSSI starting when they were 13, cleaning machinery on the “kill floor” at one of the plants. The 14-year-old worked more than 18 hours per week during overnight shifts, and suffered a burn injury from the cleaning chemicals they used.
Another child reported working from 11:00 pm to 5:00 am five to six days per week for four months when they were 14. They also reported suffering chemical burns and said they fell asleep in their middle school classes and missed school due to their grueling work schedule.
“Federal laws were established decades ago to prevent employers from profiting by putting children in harm’s way,” Michael Lazzeri, a Labor Department official in Chicago, said in a statement. “Taking advantage of children, exposing them to workplace dangers — and interfering with a federal investigation — demonstrates Packers Sanitation Services Inc.’s flagrant disregard for the law and for the well-being of young workers.”
The DOL also accused PSSI of trying to interfere in its investigation by deleting and changing employee records and intimidating the children who were being interviewed.
“During the confidential interviews in the cafeteria, a PSSI supervisor sat directly across the table from the [Wage and Hour Division] investigator conducting an interview of a worker later identified as a minor,” reads the court filing. “The investigator politely instructed the PSSI supervisor to leave the area as the interview was confidential. The PSSI supervisor eventually agreed to move after lingering for a few minutes. Other supervisors remained in the area within view of the employees throughout the interviews, circling the cafeteria.”
Labor lawyer Terri Gerstein of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School called the department’s allegations “horrendous.”
Horrendous #ChildLabor case. A sanitation company employed at least 31 kids 13-17 yrs old in hazardous occupations, including cleaning dangerous food processing equipment during overnight shifts at @JBSFoodsUSA plants in MN, NE. @USDOL taking action. https://t.co/CJpc5Owbpj
— Terri Gerstein (@TerriGerstein) November 10, 2022
“Our food system is a living nightmare dependent on slave labor and ecological devastation to produce calorie-dense garbage that literally poisons us,” said Rob Galbraith of the Public Accountability Initiative.
This is the second major story this year about the US factory food system violating laws against child labor. Our food system is a living nightmare dependent on slave labor and ecological devastation to produce calorie-dense garbage that literally poisons us. https://t.co/Hrr6jk651i
— Rob Galbraith (@RobCGalbraith) November 11, 2022
A spokesperson for PSSI told The Washington Post the company does not employ anyone under the age of 18 and suggested “rogue individuals” may have sought “to engage in fraud or identity theft” — despite the fact that the DOL investigators used several methods to verify the identities and ages of the children they interviewed.
“The Department of Labor will use every available legal resource to protect workers — regardless of their age — and hold to account those employers who mistakenly believe they can violate the Fair Labor Standards Act, obstruct federal investigations, and retaliate against workers who assert their rights,” said Christine Heri, regional solicitor of labor in Chicago.