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Tennessee firm hired kids to clean head splitters and other dangerous equipment in meat plants, feds allege

Labor secretary on strong January jobs report
Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su on strong January jobs report, messaging, child labor 05:30

The U.S. Department of Labor is alleging a Tennessee firm illegally employed children as young as 13, some of whom were found to be cleaning dangerous equipment like head splitters and jaw pullers in meat processing plants during overnight shifts.

The development comes as part of an ongoing probe into whether migrant kids are cleaning U.S. slaughterhouses and less than a year after the government fined another sanitation services provider $1.5 million for employing more than 100 kids —  ages 13 to 17 — at 13 meat processing plants in eight states. Federal law prohibits minors from working in meat processing due to an increased risk of injury. 

The Labor Department on Wednesday said it had requested a federal court in Iowa issue a temporary injunction against Somerville, Tennessee-based Fayette Janitorial Services after investigators found it employed children for overnight shifts to fulfill sanitation contracts at meat and poultry companies. 

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The company, which operates in about 30 states and employs more than 600 workers, allegedly used minors to clean kill floor equipment like head splitters, jaw pullers, meat bandsaws and neck clippers, the DOL said.

Fayette allegedly hired 15 children as young as 13 at a Perdue Farms processing plant in Accomac, Virginia, where a 14-year-old was severely injured, and at least nine children at a Seaboard Triumph Foods facility in Sioux City, Iowa, the agency stated.

Perdue terminated its contract with Fayette before the DOL's court filing, the company said. 

"Underage labor has no place in our business or our industry. Perdue has strong safeguards in place to ensure that all associates are legally eligible to work in our facilities—and we expect the same of our vendors," a spokesperson for Perdue said in an email.

Seaboard said it had terminated its contracts with Fayette after learning of the allegations against the company, a third-party vendor that began providing sanitation services at the Sioux City plant in September. 

Fayette did not respond to a request for comment. 

Migrant children

The DOL launched its investigation after a published report detailed migrant kids working overnight for contractors in poultry-processing facilities on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. A New York Times Magazine story in December detailed children cleaning blood, grease and feathers from equipment with acid and pressure hoses.

The Times' account included details of a 14-year-old boy who was maimed while cleaning a conveyor belt in a deboning area at a Perdue slaughterhouse in rural Virginia. The eighth grader was among thousands of Mexican and Central American children who have crossed the border on their own to work in dangerous jobs.

But it's not only migrant children tasked with illegal and dangerous work. A 16-year-old high school student, Michael Schuls, died in June after getting trapped in a machine at a Wisconsin sawmill

The DOL is working with other federal agencies to combat child labor exploitation nationwide, the agency said.

"Federal laws were established decades ago to prevent employers from profiting from the employment of children in dangerous jobs, yet we continue to find employers exploiting children," stated Jessica Looman, administrator at the DOL's Wage and Hour Division. "Our actions to stop these violations will help ensure that more children are not hurt in the future." 

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