In February, the Department of Labor uncovered that a sanitation services provider for U.S. food processors had illegally employed children in hazardous conditions; now, the Department of Agriculture is responding as well. In a letter, the USDA is instructing that the top 18 largest meat and poultry producers root out illegal child labor, prohibit child labor in contracts with partner companies and audit them to ensure compliance, and adopt standards to ease reporting of illegal labor practices.
The letter follows the Department of Labor’s findings against Packers Sanitation Services Inc. On February 16, Packers paid a $1.5 million fine after a Labor Department investigation revealed the cleaning company had employed 102 children between 13 and 17 at jobs with hazardous chemicals and equipment on overnight shifts.
The investigation found child labor was used at 13 meat processing plants owned by 9 different companies in 8 states, including 3 plants in Minnesota and Nebraska, each. The list of companies found by the Department of Labor to employ child labor via Packers included Tyson Food Inc., JBS Foods and Cargill Inc.
“The food industry and USDA have a shared commitment to ensure that there is zero tolerance for illegal child labor,” wrote Thomas Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, in the letter to meat processers. “For USDA, this means we will use our procurement and regulatory authorities to provide the necessary attention and increased oversight to curb this recent trend as quickly as possible.”
In a statement accompanying the letter, the USDA said its guidance for food processing companies is “just the first step in many we hope to take on this issue,” and that it is working with the Department of Labor and exploring means of increasing oversight.
“The use of illegal child labor—particularly requiring that children undertake dangerous tasks—is inexcusable, and companies must consider both their legal and moral responsibilities to ensure they and their suppliers, subcontractors, and vendors fully comply with child labor laws,” the USDA said.