A 2022 Department of Labor (DOL) investigation that discovered the wide-spread use of child labour in meat plants had an unintended consequence, according to families and community members. It reportedly put the children themselves at risk of dropping out of school and their families at risk of potentially being jailed or deported, according to The Washington Post.
In October, DOL found that Packers Sanitation Services Inc., which supplies cleaning workers to meat facilities, employed more than 100 children doing dangerous work across eight different states.
Children as young as 13 working inside the plants, in roles that sometimes involved using high-powered hoses, scalding water, and industrial chemicals to clean killing floors slick with blood and filled with razor-sharp meat saws. At least three of the minors in the investigation, DOL found, had burns on their hands from cleaning chemicals.
“Make no mistake, this is no clerical error, or actions of rogue individuals or bad managers," Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator of the department’s Wage and Hour Division, told reporters at the time. "These findings represent a systemic failure across PSSI’s entire organization to ensure that children were not working in violation of the law. PSSI’s systems in many cases flagged that these children were too young to work, and yet they were still employed at these facilities."
The company, which blamed “rogue individuals” within management for the lapse, and said the employed minors were only a tiny fraction of its 17,000-person workforce, was fined $1.5m.
However, the story didn’t end there.
Once the raid was over, many of the children involved dropped out school, and some of their parents were sent to jail for abetting in child labour violations.
Community service providers told the Washington Post that the Department of Labor didn’t notify them of which children were at the center of the probe, while the agency told the paper it couldn’t disclose the names for privacy reasons. As a result of this gap, the children simply fell off the map, even though some would be eligible for benefit payments or deportation protections as potential victims of human trafficking.
“It’s maddening,” Audrey Lutz, a former director of the area nonprofit Multicultural Coalition, told the paper. “We have no idea where they are.”
Erik Omar of the Immigrant Legal Center of Nebraska, told the Post: “We are here to help. But we can’t help if we don’t know who the kids are.”
According to DOL data, child labour violations have grown steadily in recent years.
One driving factor in this trend is the influx in child migrants, who are more vulnerable to exploitation and perform dangerous jobs that American citizens avoid, the New York Times reports.