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Meat-plant contractor hired kids to clean "razor-sharp saws" with chemicals, government says

Firm fined $1.5M for illegally hiring children
Firm fined $1.5 million for illegally hiring children 00:19

A food-safety sanitation company was fined $1.5 million by the U.S. Department of Labor for employing more than 100 children — some as young as 13 — in dangerous jobs including cleaning "razor-sharp saws" with "caustic chemicals."

The children, who ranged in age from 13 to 17, were found to be working with hazardous chemicals and cleaning meat-processing equipment such as back saws, head splitters and brisket saws, the Labor Department (DOL) said on Friday. 

The children, some of whom worked overnight shifts, were employed at 13 meat processing plants in eight states by Packers Sanitation Services, or PSSI, which contracts out cleaning services, the statement said. At least three children were injured while working for PSSI, the agency said.

The fine stems from an investigation last year when the Labor Department asked a federal court to issue a restraining order against PSSI to stop it from hiring workers under 18, which was granted by a Nebraska judge. The children worked in plants operated by companies including Tyson Food, Cargill and other meat packers, the agency said on Friday.

"These children should never have been employed in meat packing plants and this can only happen when employers do not take responsibility to prevent child labor violations from occurring in the first place," said Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator of the agency's Wage and Hour Division, in a statement.

In a statement to CBS MoneyWatch, PSSI said it was "pleased to have finalized this settlement figure" with the Labor Department. None of the children are working at the company today, and many had left the company's employment years ago, the company said.

"We have been crystal clear from the start: Our company has a zero-tolerance policy against employing anyone under the age of 18 and fully shares the DOL's objective of ensuring full compliance at all locations," the company said. 

PSSI conducted "multiple additional audits of our employee base" after learning about the Labor Department's allegations, and hired an external law firm to review its policies, the statement added.

States push to ease child labor laws

In an email, a Cargill spokesperson said the "allegations settled today between PSSI and the Department of Labor did not involve any claims of misconduct against Cargill. The allegations against PSSI were not substantiated by any evidence in a court of law." 

Tyson didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Although labor regulators are cracking down on child labor violations, lawmakers in a number of states want to ease laws to allow more minors to work, part of a response to the tight labor market. For instance, Arkansas lawmakers are proposing a bill that would allow kids to work without written consent from their parents and without proving their age, THV11 reported. 

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