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The Biden administration moves to crack down on labor law violations in the meat sector.
Words by Grace Hussain
At two California poultry processing plants, an investigation recently revealed children under the age of 16 were working full-time, required to use sharp knives to debone birds, in violation of federal regulations. The discovery was made when Department of Labor investigators searched the two facilities in September. Now The Exclusive Poultry, Inc., owner of both facilities has been ordered to pay $3.5 million in damages and backpay.
Employing children in hazardous meatpacking jobs, and during hours that require workers to skip school are just a few of the company’s many violations. They were also withholding wages by failing to accurately keep track of employees’ hours, not paying overtime and retaliating against workers in order to cover up their illegal business practices, according to the Department of Labor.
The investigation is just the latest to uncover illegal working conditions for minors in the meat industry in the United States. In 2023, the department pursued more than 20 cases against meat and poultry processors and meat markets for various labor law violations.
Last July, the Biden Administration announced a new effort to crack down on child labor — an interagency task force focused exclusively on uncovering and addressing companies’ employing children. The announcement was made in response to the agency reporting a 69 percent uptick in incidents of child labor between 2018 and 2022, including an investigation that revealed more than 100 children illegally employed to clean slaughterhouses.
In April, ahead of the Labor Department’s enhanced enforcement, the USDA issued a letter to the 18 meat and poultry processors that collectively account for 70 percent of the country’s production asking that they ensure their supply chains don’t include child labor.
In response to the violations, the Department of Labor has handed companies financial penalties ranging from tens of thousands to millions of dollars, in some circumstances barring these employers from selling “hot goods” produced in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
On top of millions in penalties and damages, the department has enacted the “hot goods” prohibition against The Exclusive Poultry, Inc. — possibly signaling more serious enforcement of child and other labor violations. The court ruling included protections for workers moving forward, including a prohibition on negative reference letters in addition to the provisions punishing the company.
According to the Department of Labor, the two California facilities indirectly supply numerous large brands including Aldi and Sysco. When asked about the findings of the report, a spokesperson for Sysco claimed that they have “no evidence that [the company] has done business with The Exclusive Poultry.”
“Sysco has zero tolerance for child labor, discrimination, or unsafe working conditions for anyone working in our facilities or the facilities of those with whom we do business,” the company’s spokesperson said in an email, calling the investigator’s findings “inconsistent with the ethical standards outlined in Sysco’s Supplier Code of Conduct.”
Yet like many other multinational corporations, Sysco is no stranger to labor violations in their supply chain., The food distributor came under fire from Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA) for its relationship with two seafood suppliers owned by the Chinese corporation Chishan Group. Despite evidence suggesting that both of the suppliers depend on slavery to process seafood, Sysco has cut ties with only one.
Aldi did not respond to Sentient Media’s request for comment.
The Biden administration has a long road ahead when it comes to addressing labor violations in the meat industry — a challenge made more difficult by the increasing number of foreign workers employed by the sector. As visas expire, these workers are often more vulnerable to labor abuses that they don’t report due to the fear of deportation.
Evidence suggests their fears may be justified, as immigration officials have raided processing plants in the past, taking hundreds of workers into custody to check their immigration status and initiate deportation proceedings while leaving their minor family members behind.
A top Department of Labor official made a point of addressing these concerns: “…We will use all tools at our disposal to protect workers, regardless of age and immigration status,” Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda said in a statement on the recent crackdown.
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