From stakeouts to warrants: How federal investigators found more than 100 children cleaning slaughterhouses
Eighty five years ago, the United States outlawed child abuse in sweatshop labor--a scourge that Franklin Roosevelt called "this ancient atrocity." So, it was a shock in 2022 to learn that an American company, owned by a Wall Street firm, sent children as young as 13 to work in slaughterhouses. The disgrace was more disturbing because the company, PSSI, is vital to national food safety and its owner, Blackstone, claims to be a model of management. Both companies say they had no idea they employed children in eight states. But it was obvious to teachers in Grand Island, Nebraska who noticed acid burns on a child.
In our story, you will see only two photos of children working in a slaughterhouse. Because of privacy, two, with obscured faces, are all the U.S. Department of Labor would give us. But two may be enough. Their hard hats read "PSSI" for Packers Sanitation Services Incorporated-- the nation's leading slaughterhouse cleaning service with 15,000 workers, in 432 plants, taking in more than a billion dollars a year. Not, it seemed, a likely abuser of children.
Shannon Rebolledo: It seemed possible, but not necessarily likely. And if it were possible, you know, maybe it was-- someone had slipped through the cracks.
Shannon Rebolledo is a 17-year Labor Department investigator who was skeptical. But she went to Grand Island, Nebraska, last summer, after a middle school told police about acid burns on the hand and knee of a 14-year-old girl. The student explained that she worked nights in this slaughterhouse on the edge of town.
Scott Pelley: What did the educators at Walnut Middle School tell you?
Shannon Rebolledo: It seemed to be known within the community that minors either are or were working overnight shifts. They told us about children that were falling asleep in class, um, that had burns, chemical burns. They were concerned for the safety of the kids. They were concerned that they weren't able to stay awake and do their job, which is learning in school.
Scott Pelley: Because they'd been up all night.
Shannon Rebolledo: Right.
'Up all night' at the JBS slaughterhouse--an immense plant that produces 5% of the beef in America. JBS can butcher 6,000 cows a day here, but each night, the plant was turned over to PSSI for cleaning from 11 to 7 am. Shannon Rebolledo staked out the parking lot as JBS left and PSSI came in.
Shannon Rebolledo: And you really noted the difference in the appearance of these workers that were coming to work this late-night shift.
Scott Pelley: What do you mean?
Shannon Rebolledo: They were, they were little. They looked young.
She believed children were washing bloody floors and razor-sharp machines with scalding water and powerful chemicals. So, Rebolledo returned with a team and a search warrant. She says they found nine children at work, a revelation that triggered a national audit of PSSI.
Scott Pelley: And what did you find?
Shannon Rebolledo: That this was a standard operating procedure. That there were minors employed across the country between the ages of 13 and 17 working the overnight shift
Scott Pelley: This was not a mistake?
Shannon Rebolledo: There is no way this was just a mistake, a clerical error, a handful of rouge individuals getting through. This was the standard operating procedure.
Scott Pelley: How many minors did you identify?
Shannon Rebolledo: We were able to identify and confirm 102 minors at 13 different plants in eight different states.
Scott Pelley: Do you believe that 102 is the full extent?
Shannon Rebolledo: Not at all. I believe that the number is likely much higher.
Last November, the Department of Labor filed suit against PSSI. The company responded with this: "PSSI has an absolute company-wide prohibition" against hiring minors. It added, "we will defend ourselves vigorously against these claims."
The statement said PSSI checks eligibility of employees, including this girl, on a federal database. But that database is well known to be abused in an industry that can struggle to find workers.
The jobs are grim and dangerous--and so they are often filled by immigrants who are desperate for work. Some immigrants use false papers to routinely beat the federal identification system that is known as E-Verify. Employers have known for nearly 30 years that E-Verify is useless if the applicant has bought, borrowed or stolen an actual ID --which is common. and in the case of the children, E-Verify was especially dubious.
Shannon Rebolledo: These weren't close calls. In some cases, they were 13-year-olds working and they were identified by PSSI as being in their 30s. It's just not possible.
In its statement when the suit was filed, PSSI said, in addition to E-Verify, it has "industry-leading, best-in-class procedures..." including "extensive training, document verification, biometrics and multiple layers of audits."
Shannon Rebolledo: The system that they use automatically flags whether or not someone has certified that they are 18 or not. And what we found in our review was that it was regularly ignored if someone didn't certify that they were 18.
Scott Pelley: Did any of the children tell you how long they had been working at the plant?
Shannon Rebolledo: Yes.
Scott Pelley: And how long was that?
Shannon Rebolledo: We looked back at a three-year period. So, we can confirm that they had minors working there as early as 2019.
Four weeks after its vow to "vigorously defend" itself, PSSI settled with the government. It did not dispute the finding that it hired children. PSSI promised not to do so in the future and agreed to regular audits. The company paid the maximum fine of $1.5 million, which was about 1 percent of its cash on hand. The settlement ended the suit but it did not answer the question--why. The children's pay was the same as adults so why hire kids? Jessica Lima gave us insight into this question—and into the desperation of the workers.
Jessica Lima: People, I know, we need money to survive, to pay bills, to pay rent. But for me, it's not. We just need-- we just need a job.
Lima worked for PSSI, as an adult, in another plant. She told us it was obvious some co-workers were children.
Jessica Lima: They have the age from-- like my kids are right now. They should be in a school. They not should be there. For us, like adult, it's hard. You can't imagine for a children. It's not easy.
Scott Pelley: Do you believe that the supervisors at PSSI knew that these were children that they were hiring?
Jessica Lima: They know but they don't say nothing. Because they just need the people to get the job done.
'People to get the job done.' Jessica Lima told us turnover of workers was high in the tough, overnight jobs but there was never a let up in the pressure to get the slaughterhouses open by dawn.
In Grand Island, many are at fault. In county court, two parents have been convicted of child abuse or endangerment for sending kids to the plant. A mother was sentenced to 60 days. And in this audio recording, a stepfather is being sentenced to 30 days by Judge Arthur Wetzel.
Judge Arthur Wetzel: Obviously, the company that employed this young lady has substantial blame. Forcing young children to work on a kill floor at a beefpacking plant. Taking false identification that the young lady was 22 years of age when in fact she was 14. There's blame to be passed upon the mother who obtained the false documents so her child could work. Also, the elephant in the room, JBS, is at blame for hiring a cleaning company such as this to conduct their affairs in their plant.
Parents purchased false identities. Children were coached to lie. But it was up to PSSI to ensure its operations didn't create a market for child labor. In its defense, a top PSSI official told us, off camera, "[We] own this." "We know we made some mistakes." "It's inexcusable." PSSI now says it has fired more than three dozen local managers.
Shannon Rebolledo: The sheer nature, the systemic failures, I've never seen systemic failures like this. The violations across the board at all of these different locations, I've never seen something like that.
For all the years the investigation found child labor, PSSI has been owned by Wall Street's Blackstone--the largest private equity firm in the world. Blackstone told us "extensive pre-investment due diligence showed PSSI had industry-leading hiring compliance..." But it seems, that diligence failed to find what was obvious to investigators watching a shift change in a parking lot. Still, the investment giant says, "a claim of insufficient diligence or oversight is simply false." And yet 102 children labored at 13 slaughterhouses in eight states.
Jessica Looman: We're really, really outraged and concerned that this is happening in the country today.
Jessica Looman heads the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division--in charge of enforcement.
Scott Pelley: In your view, is this billionaires making profits off the sweat of children?
Jessica Looman: This was a systemic problem that was happening at PSSI and we have to think about what this means for our communities, what this means for our economy. And what we at the Department of Labor, and across this administration, are adamant about is that we will never rebuild our economy on the backs of children.
Scott Pelley: Sounds like the 19th century.
Jessica Looman: This is happening in 2022, 2023 that we have kids working in meatpacking factories. And we should all be outraged.
Scott Pelley: Hard to imagine the callousness that is required.
Jessica Looman: It makes us all question what's going wrong.
Neither Blackstone nor PSSI would make a corporate officer available for an on-camera interview. PSSI offered an attorney, hired after the Labor Department filed suit. But he had no first-hand knowledge of the hiring of children. Today, PSSI has a new CEO. It pledges to, among other things, spend $10 million on the welfare of children.
In Grand Island, the slaughterhouse owner, JBS, told us it didn't know children worked in its plant. JBS and other meatpackers have fired PSSI at more than two dozen sites. PSSI told us "we are 100 percent committed" to enforcing "our absolute prohibition" against hiring children.
As for the child workers in Grand Island, privacy laws prevent officials from telling us much. But we do know one child is in foster care and others are with their parents.
Scott Pelley: You know, I wonder after speaking to these children, after exposing what was happening to them, what is your hope for them now?
Shannon Rebolledo: I hope that they're safe. I hope that they have an opportunity to be kids, to go to school and not be tired. And if they're working, I just, I hope that they're able to work in a safe environment.
Produced by Henry Schuster and Sarah Turcotte. Broadcast associate, Michelle Karim. Edited by Warren Lustig.
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