Children are doing dangerous work at JBS meat processing plants in Minnesota and Nebraska, being hired illegally for overnight shifts and jobs that left a 13-year-old with caustic chemical burns, federal officials say.
The U.S. Department of Labor this week asked a federal court to issue a nationwide restraining order against the world’s largest meat processing company, the largest meat processing company in facility cleaning, Packers Sanitation Services, or PSSI, to prevent it from employs dozens of workers under the age of 18. A U.S. district judge in Lincoln, Nebraska, granted the temporary request on Thursday, a department spokesman told CBS MoneyWatch in an email.
An investigation that began in August found that PSSI hired at least 31 children — ages 13 to 17 — to fulfill the company’s sanitation contracts at JBS plants in Grand Island, Nebraska, and Worthington, Minnesota, and at Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall. Minnesota, Labor Department officials said.
Work performed by children reportedly included cleaning dangerous motorized equipment with corrosive cleaners during the night and cleaning floors where animals are slaughtered. Several minors were injured, including a 13-year-old boy who suffered caustic chemical burns and other injuries, according to the agency.
Initial evidence “indicates that PSSI may be employing minors under similar conditions at its other 400 businesses across the country,” the agency said in a court filing.
PSSI is also accused of attempting to intimidate underage workers to prevent them from cooperating with investigators and of deleting and manipulating employment records, the DOL said.
Headquartered in Kieler, Wisconsin, PSSI provides cleaning and sanitation services and employs 17,000 people as contractors in 700 food processing plants. The company rejected the allegations, saying that “PSSI has an absolute company-wide prohibition on the employment of anyone under the age of 18 and zero tolerance for any violation of this policy.”
PSSI also uses a variety of processes to confirm the identity of new hires, including mandatory use of the government’s E-verify system, the company said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch.
“While unscrupulous individuals could of course seek to engage in fraud or identity theft, we are confident in our company’s strict compliance policies and will defend ourselves vigorously against these claims,” the company said.
The company is cooperating with the DOL as it continues its investigation, PSSI added.
JBS is investigating
JBS said it was taking the allegations seriously. If true, they would violate the company’s ethics policies, according to Michael Koenig, head of ethics and compliance at JBS USA, a unit of Brazilian meat giant JBS. The largest US beef producer, JBS USA is the nation’s second largest pork and poultry producer, employing more than 66,000 people at 55 facilities across the US
“We are immediately launching an independent third-party audit of all of our facilities to thoroughly assess this situation. JBS has zero tolerance for child labor, discrimination or unsafe working conditions for anyone working at our facilities. We expect and contractually require our partners to us to adhere to the highest ethical principles as outlined in our business partner code of conduct,” Koenig said in a statement sent to CBS MoneyWatch.
Turkey Valley Farms did not respond to a request for comment.
The Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits minors age 13 and under from working and workers ages 14 and 15 from working later than 9 p.m. from June 1 through Labor Day and after 7 p.m. for the rest of the year. The law also limits the number of hours minors can work on school days and prohibits children from operating dangerous equipment.
“Federal laws were put in place decades ago to prevent employers from profiting by putting children at risk,” said Michael Lazzeri, a regional official for the Department of Labor in Chicago. “Exploiting children, exposing them to workplace hazards — and interfering with a federal investigation — demonstrates Packers Sanitation Services Inc.’s flagrant disregard for the law and the welfare of young workers.”