Slaughterhouses in Virginia and Iowa hired children to clean head cutters, meat band saws and other deadly equipment on night shifts, resulting in a 14-year-old boy being mauled in a machine, federal investigators say.
The Department of Labor found nine children working at Seaboard Triumph Foods LLC in Sioux City, Iowa, and 15 others at a Perdue Farms plant in Accomac, Virginia, where the teen’s arm was seriously injured.
They asked a federal court to issue a restraining order against Fayette Janitorial Service, the Tennessee-based subcontractor that hired the cleaners.
It would order the company to stop employing children while the investigation continues.
Inspectors found underage cleaners working at Seaboard Triumph Foods LLC in Sioux City, Iowa.
Child labor violations soared in the United States in fiscal year 2022-2023 to their highest level in nearly two decades, with 5,792 minors working illegally, an increase of 88 percent from 2019.
Dale Burns owns and operates Fayette Janitorial Service
Unscrupulous bosses often hire immigrant children who speak poor English and need a paycheck and don’t ask questions about safety.
Jessica Looman, the department’s administrator, said the violations in Iowa and Virginia had “real consequences on children’s lives.”
“Our actions to stop these violations will help ensure that more children are not hurt in the future.”
In a statement to DailyMail.com, officials said the children were working “night health shifts,” which is prohibited because it interferes with schooling.
“Juveniles were used to clean dangerous equipment on the slaughter floor, such as head cutters, jaw pullers, meat band saws and hair clippers,” the statement said.
Children under 18 cannot work in slaughterhouses under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The request for an injunction was filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa.
These images show working conditions at Seaboard Triumph Foods, and not necessarily underage workers.
Animal waste on the wet floor of Seaboard Triumph Foods in Sioux City, Iowa
The Perdue Farms poultry processing plant in Accomac, Virginia, a well-known brand
Fayette Janitorial Service, of Somerville, is owned and operated by husband and wife team Dale and Michelle Burns.
It employs more than 600 people, who help clean meat and poultry processing plants in 30 states.
A spokesperson said the company has a “zero tolerance policy for junior workers” and was working to ensure it would not hire more juniors in the future.
Michelle Burns also owns and runs the cleanup.
Perdue Farms and Seaboard Triumph Foods meat and poultry products are widely available in grocery stores.
Perdue and Seaboard told DailyMail.com they had terminated their contracts with Fayette.
“Child labor has no place in our business or our industry,” Perdue’s statement said.
“Perdue has strong safeguards in place to ensure all associates are legally eligible to work in our facilities, and we expect the same from our suppliers.”
Experts say employers are hiring more children in lower-wage service sector jobs because the labor market is tight.
There are also many young people looking for jobs, thanks to inflation hitting family budgets and thousands of unaccompanied minors crossing the border between the United States and Mexico in the hope of finding work and a salary.
The Fayette investigation is not the first case of child labor violations at a food plant.
Last February, Packers Sanitation Services, a meatpacking plant cleaning contractor, agreed to pay $1.5 million and reform its hiring practices in a settlement.
Underage cleaners were exposed to dangerous machines at the Sioux City, Iowa, plant.
The owners and managers of Tennessee-based Fayette Janitorial Service did not respond to our request for comment.
Investigators found that 102 children worked for Packers at 13 dangerous plants in eight states, some of whom worked all night and suffered chemical burns from cleaning products used in dangerous machines.
They cleaned machines with such sinister names as the Heavy Duty Head Splitter, Dehorner and Dominator Mixer/Grinder, described in court documents as a “125-horsepower behemoth that can grind 36,000 pounds of meat per hour.”
Several young workers, including a 13-year-old boy, suffered “severe chemical burns” from the Packers’ use of powerful cleaning chemicals, often in low visibility conditions and with grease and flesh scattered on the ground.
Still, insiders say the fines are just the “cost of doing business” for unreliable bosses.
Reid Maki, coordinator of the National Consumers League’s Child Labor Coalition, told DailyMail.com that the penalty imposed on the Wisconsin-based Packers was too small to deter future abusers.
“Employers need to be made to fear that there are repercussions for hiring children illegally,” Maki said.
“We have to send a strong message to companies that illegally employ children in dangerous environments and the way to do that is with really significant fines that really hurt the company’s bottom line.”
Lawmakers in several states have pushed in recent years to allow children to work in riskier jobs and for longer hours. The proposals from politicians, mostly Republicans, aim to address the worker shortage.