Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms, which together produce a third of the poultry sold in the United States, are under federal investigation over whether they relied on migrant children to clean slaughterhouses, one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.

The Labor Department launched the investigation after a New York Times Magazine article published last week found that migrant children were working night shifts for contractors at the companies’ factories on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Children as young as 13 used acid and pressure hoses to clean blood, grease and feathers from industrial machinery.

Meat processing is one of the most dangerous industries in the country and federal law prohibits minors from working in slaughterhouses because of the high risk of injury. The Times article focused on a child, Marcos Cux, whose arm was mangled by a conveyor belt last year while he was disinfecting a disassembly area at the Perdue plant. He was in eighth grade.

The investigations are a rare example of two major consumer brands facing federal scrutiny over child labor. Many meat processing companies outsource cleaning to sanitation companies that technically employ the workers. After another Labor Department investigation recently found that more than 100 children were cleaning sanitation facilities across the country, one company, Packers Sanitation Services Inc., paid a $1.5 million fine. However, the national companies that profited from the children’s labor, including Tyson, were not investigated.

Seema Nanda, the Labor Department’s chief counsel, said in an interview that the Biden administration is currently examining whether large companies could be considered employers even if children enter their factories through contractors.

“We are long past the day when brands can say they don’t know there is child labor in their supply chain,” Ms Nanda said. “The intent is to ensure that those further up the supply chain hold their subcontractors and staffing agencies accountable.”

Representatives for Perdue and Tyson said the companies were not trying to evade responsibility and would cooperate with any investigations. The companies, whose policies prohibit the work of minors, said they were unaware that children were working at their Virginia plants.

Tyson said it now employs cleaners directly at 40 percent of its slaughterhouses and plans to bring more of that work in-house. Perdue said it had hired an outside auditor to propose new policies. “We recognize the systemic nature of this problem and welcome any role we can play in a solution,” Perdue spokeswoman Andrea Staub said in a statement.

The Labor Department has also opened investigations into the companies that handled cleanup shifts for Perdue and Tyson in Virginia: Fayette Industrial, which works with Perdue, and QSI, which works with Tyson and is part of a conglomerate, the Vincit Group.

Fayette hired Marcos at age 13 after he came to Virginia from his village in Guatemala. Last February, he was cleaning deep inside a conveyor belt at the Perdue plant when it suddenly came to life, dragging him across the floor and tearing open his arm. He underwent three surgeries, but his arm remained limp at his side, his hand frozen into a claw.

He is one of thousands of Mexican and Central American children who have come to the United States alone since 2021 and ended up in dangerous, strenuous jobs, The Times reported in a series of articles this year.

On Wednesday, the Labor Department took the additional step of sending an alert to hundreds of investigators across the country about a child labor “enforcement action” targeting QSI. The alert described a clearinghouse system for tips about the company, operated through the department’s office in Tennessee, where the plumbing company is based.

Fayette and QSI said they had policies against child labor and were unaware of the federal investigation. Tyson said it plans to end its relationship with QSI at several plants, while Perdue has told Fayette it may end its contract.

While the Labor Department has fewer than 750 investigators covering more than 11 million jobs, another federal agency — the Agriculture Department — sends inspectors to the nation’s slaughterhouses every day. The Times reported last week that food safety inspectors regularly encountered minors working in Virginia factories but did not believe it was their job to report child labor violations. Inspectors said they knew the children had to work to pay rent and send money back to desperate families.

An Agriculture Department spokesman said the agency is in the process of retraining the country’s nearly 8,000 food inspectors to quickly report child laborers to the Labor Department.

“The use of illegal child labor – particularly requiring children to perform dangerous tasks – is inexcusable,” said spokesman Allan Rodriguez.

Lawmakers called on companies and the Biden administration to do more to free children from slaughterhouses. Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, sent a letter to Tyson Foods CEO Donnie King, calling on the company to commit to an independent child labor audit.

Several Democrats, including Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Rep. Hillary Scholten of Michigan, said they would push for legislation and more funding to hold companies accountable.

Source : www.nytimes.com

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