With the labour market stretched thin - while businesses returned to full steam after the pandemic, many workers did not - and rebuilding hit with the double whammy of inflation, employers are going to the cheapest and easiest avenue to find workers.
The practice of hiring children under a certain age was placed under strict limits way back in 1938, however, breaking those rules is rife - and increasing - in the US, particularly by players in the food industry.
In February, the DoL reported a sharp rise in child labour violations across all industries since 2018.
The DoL’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) - which is tasked to enforce federal child labour laws - recorded a 37% increase in the number of minors employed in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 2022 alone. Almost 4,000 minors were illegally employed that year, of which, only 835 are on record.
Are you violating US child labour laws?
The UN’s International Labour Organization defines child labour as work that is mentally or physically dangerous for children and interferes with their schooling.
In the US, companies are prohibited from hiring children younger than 14, but 14- and 15-year olds can work three hours a day on schooldays, although they can’t legally work during school hours or take early morning or night shifts.
Children under the age of 18 are barred from operating a range of hazardous machinery, like band saws and meat choppers.
Like lambs to the slaughter
More than 75% of the recent violations were committed by employers with one thing in common: they grow, package, deliver, cook, sell and serve the nation’s food.
Earlier this year, WHD investigation data revealed more than 12,000 of the child labour violations to be committed by the food sector - versus 16,000 across all industries - between 2018 and 2022.
The WHD data found children involved in every step of the food supply chain, working illegally from farm to table.
Foodservice operators, ostensibly, are by far the worst offenders, with culprits ranging from pizza chains to high-end restaurants, along with fast food chains (McDonald’s franchises allegedly committed 8.7% of the violations).
The practice is equally rife in the retail and agriculture channels, the latter routinely hiring migrant child workers to work for 10 or more hours a day, 5-7 days a week, according to the Food Environment Reporting Network (FERN).
Like lambs to the slaughter, underaged teens are being enticed into operating heavy machinery (buzz saws, head splitters, brisket saws), working with hazardous chemics and for long hours by the meat processing sector.
Earlier this year, 102 children - ranging between 13 to 17 years - were discovered to be illegally employed by Wisconsin-based Packers Sanitation Services Inc (PSSI), one of the country’s largest slaughterhouse service providers for majors like Cargill, Tyson Foods and Maple Leaf Farms, among others. Several child workers suffered chemical burns on the job and PSSI was fined $1.5m in civil money penalties.
Now, yet another meat snacks provider has been caught using children in dangerous labour roles.
The DoL has discovered at least 11 children employed by Monogram Meat Snacks to operate hazardous machinery at its meatpacking and food processing facility in Chandler, Minnesota.
The consequences for the Memphis-headquartered company are far reaching.
The Tennessee producer has been slapped with a six-figure fine, but perhaps more devastating is the prohibition on shipping its beef jerky and other products to market. How long that shipping ban will last is yet to be revealed.
Monogram agreed to pay $140+K in civil money penalties as part of the investigation by the DoL’s WHD - which began in March 2023 and found five x 17-year-olds, four x 16-year-olds and two x 15-year-olds working at the Chandler facility.
The company has also been instructed to take specific steps to ensure compliance of the Fair Labor Standards Act, including the hiring of a third-party consultant to conduct nationwide audits and establishing a toll-free number, which will allow employees to anonymously report potential child labour compliance issues.
Committed to keeping young people safe
“The Department of Labor and the Biden-Harris administration are committed to combating the troubling increase in child labour violations,” said principal deputy WHD administrator Jessica Looman.
“No employer should ever jeopardise the safety of children by employing them to operate dangerous equipment. Employers are legally responsible for recognising potential child labour violations and taking all appropriate actions to verify that they are not employing children illegally.”
Added solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda, “Child labour abuses are a stain on our nation, and we will continue to utilise every tool and legal strategy at our disposal to keep young people safe.
“The employment of children in hazardous occupations cannot be allowed here in the US - or in any other nation.
“In this and similar cases, we have put companies that employ children to produce goods illegally on notice that we will stop them from shipping and selling goods produced under the ‘hot goods’ provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act.”
Monogram Meat Snacks is a subsidiary of Memphis-based Monogram Food Solutions, which is backed by investors Pritzker Private Capital and HF Capital. Monogram Management Services is the named employer.
In addition to its Chandler plant, Monogram operates meatpacking facilities in Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.