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U.S. sanitation company accused of employing kids to clean slaughterhouses

PSSI employee who appears to be a minor working in the 'Ground Beef room' of a meat packing plant in Nebraska (L) and another employee who appears to be a minor hosing off equipment in the same plant (R). U.S. Department of Labor

The U.S. Department of Labor is investigating a leading sanitation company over allegations that it employed dozens of children to work overnight cleaning shifts in slaughterhouses and meatpacking facilities across the country, the agency announced.

Packers Sanitation Services, Inc. (PSSI), a nationwide firm that services more than 700 food processing facilities, is accused of using child labour to fulfil its contracts in at least three plants in Nebraska and Minnesota, the Department of Labor’s preliminary investigation found. The agency claims that the company employed at least 31 children aged 13 to 17.

Several children who worked for PSSI, including one 13-year-old, suffered caustic chemical burns and other injuries while working dangerous graveyard shifts cleaning high-powered equipment, according to court documents filed on Nov. 9.

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PSSI denies the claims. In a statement, the company said that it has “an absolute company-wide prohibition against the employment of anyone under the age of 18 and zero tolerance for any violation of that policy — period.”

“PSSI has industry-leading, best-in-class procedures to confirm the identities of its employees including mandatory use of the government’s E-verify system for new hires, as well as extensive training, document verification, biometrics and multiple layers of audits,” the statement added. “While rogue 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 Department of Labor is seeking a temporary restraining order and nationwide injunction against PSSI while it continues its investigation into what it called “oppressive child labor violations” under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Initial evidence from the agency’s formal complaint indicates that more children may be employed under similar conditions at 400 other sites across the U.S.

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In its formal complaint, the Department of Labor alleged that PSSI was having children work overnight shifts sometimes six to seven days a week to clean equipment such as bone saws and meat slicers on the killing floors of slaughterhouses.

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One child, who is attending a local middle school, was written up for falling asleep in class and another told investigators he recently dropped out of high school because he was “working and was tired.”

PSSI employee who appears to be a minor working in the ‘Ground Beef room’ of a meat packing plant in Nebraska. U.S. Department of Labor

The department also alleges that PSSI interfered with its investigation by deleting and altering employee files and intimidating its minor workers to stop them from co-operating with investigators.

The investigation into PSSI began when the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division received a tip from law enforcement that the company may be employing children. The agency then conducted interviews with dozens of the alleged minor workers, who all spoke Spanish as a first language, and discovered that many of them were students.

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“Federal laws were established decades ago to prevent employers from profiting by putting children in harm’s way,” said Department of Labour administrator Michael Lazzeri. “Taking advantage of children, exposing them to workplace dangers — and interfering with a federal investigation — demonstrates Packers Sanitation Services Inc.’s flagrant disregard for the law and for the well-being of young workers.”

Nebraska federal court ruled to partially grant the Department of Labour’s request in a Thursday filing. PSSI is required to “immediately cease and refrain from employing oppressive child labor” and comply with the investigation into its practices.

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A hearing has been set for Nov. 23 to discuss if that order will be extended, modified or dissolved.

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