Just when it looked like the child labor issue in food plants was going to fade with one outside contractor paying a $1.5 million fine, a New York Times investigation reports hundreds of underage migrant children working in plants in all industries across the country, with food at the forefront.
The Times on Feb. 26 printed an exhaustive investigation that went far beyond the early-February fine against Packers Sanitation Services Inc., which provides mostly nighttime/third-shift sanitation services to many food & beverage plants. That investigation by the U.S. Dept. of Labor found at least 102 children 13 to 17 years old working for the contract sanitation company in 13 meat-processing facilities in eight states.
The list specified 27 underage workers at JBS USA’s Grand Island, Neb., plant, 26 at a Cargill plant in Dodge City, Kan., and 22 at a JBS facility in Worthington, Minn. Single-digit numbers were at plants of Buckhead Meat, George’s Inc., Gibbon Packing, Greater Omaha Packing, Maple Leaf Farms, Turkey Valley Farms and Tyson. At least three of the minors reportedly suffered injuries while on the job with PSSI.
Sunday’s New York Times story, “Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.,” started with a vignette of 15-year-old Carolina Yoc, a Guatemalan immigrant who was working nights in a Hearthside Food Solutions plant in Grand Rapids, Mich. “At nearby plants, other children were tending giant ovens to make Chewy and Nature Valley granola bars and packing bags of Lucky Charms and Cheetos — all of them working for … Hearthside Food Solutions,” the story read.
“We are appalled by today’s New York Times article alleging that the industry is employing underage individuals in unsafe conditions, and further suggesting some of these issues may be taking place at one of our locations,” Hearthside’s new CEO Darlene Nicosia said in a statement on the company website. “Hearthside’s longstanding requirement is that everyone working in our production facilities must be at least 18 years old. We go to great lengths to vet our workforce and ensure they comply with local, state and federal laws, and the agencies we partner with do so as well.”
Nevertheless, “We take the allegation in the article seriously,” she wrote and listed four steps Hearthside was immediately undertaking and four more that the company requested from its staffing agencies.
The Times article said a representative for Hearthside said the company relied on a staffing agency to supply some workers for its plants in Grand Rapids, but conceded that it had not required the agency to verify ages through a national system that checks Social Security numbers. Unaccompanied migrant children often obtain false identification to secure work.
“General Mills, whose brands include Cheerios, Lucky Charms and Nature Valley, said it recognized the ‘seriousness of this situation’ and was reviewing The Times’ findings," the story said. "PepsiCo, which owns Frito-Lay and Quaker Oats, declined to comment.”
The article noted these children “bake dinner rolls sold at Walmart and Target, process milk used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and help debone chicken sold at Whole Foods. As recently as the fall, middle-schoolers made Fruit of the Loom socks in Alabama. In Michigan, children make auto parts used by Ford and General Motors.
“While [Dept. of Health & Human Services] checks on all minors by calling them a month after they begin living with their sponsors, data obtained by The Times showed that over the last two years, the agency could not reach more than 85,000 children. Overall, the agency lost immediate contact with a third of migrant children.”
The Times article is quite a read. See it here (it should be free with just your email registration).