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Feds allege child labor used to clean Iowa meatpacking plant


Feds allege child labor used to clean Iowa meatpacking plant

Feb 23, 2024 | 12:48 pm ET
By Clark Kauffman
Feds allege child labor used to clean Iowa meatpacking plant
The company that provides janitorial services for the Seaboard Triumph Foods plant in Sioux City has allegedly used child labor on the overnight shift inside the plant. (Exterior photo via Google Earth; interior photos of the plant from U.S. District Court filings)

The U.S. Department of Labor is alleging that a janitorial company has been using children as young as 14 years old to clean an Iowa slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant.

Fayette Industrial, also known as Fayette Janitorial Service, provides contracted janitorial services at slaughtering and meatpacking plants throughout the United States, according to the DOL’s lawsuit.

In Sioux City, Fayette employees work at a slaughtering and meatpacking plant owned and operated by Seaboard Triumph Foods, the lawsuit states. The DOL alleges Fayette has employed minor children at the Seaboard Triumph plant to work the overnight cleaning shifts, in violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which prohibits employers from using “any oppressive child labor.”

The lawsuit alleges that last September, the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division launched an investigation into Fayette’s business practices and found evidence that the company was employing minors under the age of 16 at the Sioux City plant to work the overnight shifts. The minors were allegedly working more than three hours per day and more than 18 hours per week while school was in session, in violation of the FLSA.

The minors were allegedly tasked with the cleaning of power-driven machines, including meat- and bone-cutting saws, head splitters, jaw pullers and skinning equipment.

In a brief filed with the court, the Department of Labor states that before entering the Sioux City plant, investigators conducted surveillance there and saw employees entering the building “who appeared to be minors based on their stature and appearance,” with some of the individuals carrying “pink and purply sparkly backpacks.”

Feds allege child labor used to clean Iowa meatpacking plant
This photo, taken by a federal investigator, shows animal fat on the floor of the Seaboard Triumph Foods plant in Sioux City, Iowa. (Photo from U.S. District Court filings)

All of the younger-looking employees hid their faces while entering the plant, the investigators alleged.

On Nov.  16, 2023, the DOL executed a search warrant at the plant, toured the facility during the overnight shift, documented the working conditions and interviewed workers, including minor children. One worker was wearing a “Class of 2025 South Sioux City High School” T-shirt, according to the DOL.

When one worker asked a company official why DOL investigators were in the plant, the official allegedly responded in Spanish by saying, “No les digas nada,” which translates to, “Do not tell them anything.”

The department later determined Fayette employed at least nine minor children in the plant since assuming the overnight sanitation duties there in September 2023, according to the lawsuit. That total included two 14-year-old children, one 15-year-old child, one 16-year-old child, and five 17-year-olds.

Based on records provided by the company, Fayette was still employing four minor children plant on Dec. 12, 2023 – one month after the on-site execution of the search warrant, the DOL claims.

Minor Child A was 14 years and 4 months old when hired by Fayette ... Minor Child A routinely started work at 10:45 p.m. on nights when school was in session.

– Department of Labor investigator Christopher Huber

The DOL also alleges that one of the minors reported working five to six days a week, cleaning machines while they were in operation, including machinery designed to debone hams.

“I determined Minor Child A was 14 years and 4 months old when hired by Fayette,” DOL investigator Christopher Huber stated in a sworn affidavit filed with the court. “Minor Child A routinely started work at 10:45 p.m. on nights when school was in session. Additionally, Minor Child A worked over three hours, typically seven to eight hours, and worked more than 18 hours in a week, typically at least 32, and as many as 54 hours in a week, when school was in session.”

The DOL says investigators also determined that Fayette’s employment of minors extended to a Perdue Farms slaughtering and meatpacking plant in Virginia, with the minors assigned to work overnight shifts.

The federal lawsuit seeks an injunction permanently restraining Fayette Industrial from using oppressive child labor, as well as an order requiring the company to reimburse the DOL for the costs of its investigation and litigation.

The Fair Labor Standards Act states that children 14 and 15 years of age may be employed outside school hours, but only in specified non-manufacturing and non-hazardous jobs, and for limited periods of time. Last year, 13 meatpacking plants in eight states paid a total of $1.5 million in fines related to their contracts with Packers Sanitation Service, which was accused of putting children to work in prohibited, sometimes dangerous, jobs within the plants.

Fayette Industrial, which is based in in Somerville, Tennessee, has yet to file a response to the lawsuit.  Seaboard Triumph Foods is not named as a defendant in the case.