Four minors found working at Alabama poultry plant run by same firm found responsible for Mississippi teen’s death

  • May 21, 2024
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Four minors as young as 16 were allegedly discovered working overnight at an Alabama slaughterhouse owned by the same firm that was found directly responsible for the death of a 16-year-old Mississippi worker last summer, the U.S. Labor Department said in federal court filings.

The company, Mar-Jac Poultry, has denied that it knowingly hired minors for its Jasper, Alabama, facility, saying the workers had verified IDs that gave ages older than 17, and has also argued that some of the workers were performing jobs that are not prohibited by federal regulations.

The Labor Department is seeking a temporary restraining order against Mar-Jac as part of the ongoing legal dispute. Agency officials declined to comment, citing their investigation.

The Labor Department has said that most slaughterhouse work is too dangerous for minors and is prohibited by federal regulations. Under the Biden administration, the department has taken action against companies for employing minors to clean, use or work near dangerous machinery. A chicken trade group to which Mar-Jac belongs says it has ‘zero tolerance’ for employing minors, and a major meat industry trade group also stated recently that no minors should be working in slaughterhouses.

Mar-Jac’s attorney Larry Stine said the company has a policy of not hiring anyone under the age of 18. Federal law, however, does not categorically prohibit minors from working in slaughterhouses, listing a few narrow exceptions. Stine told NBC News that to defend against child labor allegations, he argued in court filings that the specific jobs were allowed under the law.

The Mar-Jac Poultry plant in Jasper, Ala.Google Maps

Stine wrote in a brief that the job performed by two of the workers in the “rehang department,” which involves lifting and hanging chilled and eviscerated chicken carcasses, is not prohibited by federal regulations. He also wrote that the workers were not using power machinery, and that a job where one of the workers used a knife to cut wings from carcasses on a conveyor belt is also not prohibited.

The company said the workers were verified through the government’s E-Verify system and that once the Labor Department identified them as minors the workers were immediately fired. Stine said the alleged minors in Alabama were hired directly by Mar-Jac and not a third-party staffing company.

The Jasper plant was cited in December for a “serious violation” of worker safety by a different part of the Labor Department, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

In November, according to OSHA, an employee “reached into [a] machine using an unguarded approach attempting to rectify the hanging placement of a chicken and was injured.”

According to the agency’s online enforcement database, Mar-Jac formally settled with OSHA on the injury citation earlier this week.

Court documents show the Labor Department’s child labor investigation into the Alabama facility began with a complaint in March of this year. In May, 20 Labor investigators went into the plant without prior notice in the early-morning hours and verified that at least four of the workers at the plant were minors, according to the department’s court filings.

The Jasper facility processes more than 1.6 million chickens per week, according to the company’s website.

In affidavits, Labor Department investigators said there were 18-year-old workers present who told investigators they were hired by Mar-Jac when they were 15.

At least some of the minors working at the plant were Guatemalan and attended a local high school, Labor investigators said. They said the minors started their shifts at 11 p.m. and worked from Sunday through Thursday.

In January, OSHA found Mar-Jac to be directly responsible for the death of 16-year-old Duvan Perez at its Hattiesburg, Mississippi, facility. Perez’s body was sucked into a machine that he was cleaning on the night shift and he died instantly. Perez’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Mar-Jac.

The company has contested OSHA’s conclusions, according to the agency’s enforcement database.

In a previous email about the incident, Stine said, “Mar-Jac thoroughly investigated the accident and has not found any errors committed by its safety or human resources employees. It has learned many lessons from the accident and has taken aggressive steps to prevent the occurrence of another accident or hiring underage workers.”

The NBC News documentary “Slaughterhouse Children” revealed that at least nine times in the past three years, American citizens have complained to the Hattiesburg Police Department and sometimes to Mar-Jac that their identities were stolen and being used by Mar-Jac workers, according to police reports obtained via public information requests.

The company maintained that it was duped by workers using false identities who were hired by an outside staffing firm.

Perez used the identity of a 32-year-old man to get his job at Mar-Jac in Mississippi, the company previously told NBC News. The company has also said Perez was a contract worker and that Mar-Jac relied on a staffing company to fill positions at the Hattiesburg facility and verify work eligibility.

As part of the company’s response to Perez’s death, Mar-Jac said it was applying additional scrutiny to any IDs presented for employment. Company representatives said they were also hanging up signs saying children could not be employed and the third-party hiring firm was required to provide a photo of applicants to Mar-Jac in addition to their photo ID.

Some of the steps Mar-Jac said it was taking in Mississippi are the same as those recommended in a new “best practices” document for meat processing companies released a few weeks ago by the nation’s largest meat industry trade group, the Meat Institute, which represents companies that sell beef, pork, lamb and poultry products.

The group’s best practices were published after a year of aggressive federal investigations and high-profile media coverage showing that the hiring of children to work in slaughterhouses was widespread across the industry.

But the trade group also said categorically that minors should not be working in slaughterhouses. In a press release accompanying the new best practices document, Meat Institute President and CEO Julie Anna Potts wrote, “The members of the Meat Institute are universally aligned that meat and poultry production facilities are no place for children.”

Stine noted that Mar-Jac is not a member of the Meat Institute. Mar-Jac does belong to trade groups representing the poultry industry, including the National Chicken Council, which says it represents companies that provide about 95 percent of chicken meat products to U.S. consumers.

In a statement, Tom Super, a spokesperson for the National Chicken Council, said, ‘The poultry industry has zero tolerance for the hiring of minors. Our members have recently come together to form a Task Force to Prevent Child Labor, to treat this issue as non-competitive and to foster collaboration through the sharing of best practices that aid in the prevention of minors from gaining employment.’

‘Unfortunately, in most of these cases, minors are hired even when using all of the required government screening programs and the applicants appear to be of legal age. These challenges are not unique to the poultry industry but are systemic issues affecting many other sectors in the United States, as well.’

Asked about Mar-Jac’s assertion that minors are not barred from some jobs, however, Super said, ‘Some jobs are lawful, some aren’t. We oppose all unlawful hiring.’

This post appeared first on NBC NEWS

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