Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms, which together produce one-third of the poultry sold in the United States, are under federal investigation into whether they relied on migrant children to clean slaughterhouses, some of the most dangerous work in the country.
The Labor Department opened the inquiries after an article in the New York Times Magazine, published this past week, found migrant children working overnight shifts for contractors in the companies’ plants on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Children as young as 13 were using acid and pressure hoses to scour blood, grease and feathers from industrial machines.
Meat processing is among the nation’s most hazardous industries, and federal law bans minors from working in slaughterhouses because of the high risk of injury. The Times article focused on one child, Marcos Cux, whose arm was mangled in a conveyor belt last year as he sanitized a deboning area in the Perdue plant. He was in the eighth grade.
The investigations are a rare instance of two major consumer brands facing federal scrutiny over child labor. Many meat-processing companies outsource cleaning to sanitation firms, which technically employ the workers. After another Labor Department investigation recently found more than 100 children cleaning plants around the country, one firm, Packers Sanitation Services Inc., paid a $1.5 million fine. But the national corporations that benefited from the children’s work, including Tyson, did not come under investigation.
Seema Nanda, the Labor Department’s chief legal officer, said in an interview that the Biden administration is now examining whether large corporations can be considered employers even when children enter their factories through contractors.
“We are long past the day when brands can say that they don’t know that they have child labor in their supply chain,” Nanda said. “The intention is to make sure that those higher up in the supply chain are holding their subcontractors and staffing agencies accountable.”
Representatives for Perdue and Tyson said the companies were not trying to avoid accountability and would cooperate with any investigations. The companies, which have policies prohibiting underage labor, said they had not known children were working in their Virginia plants.
Tyson said it was now directly employing cleaners at 40% of its slaughterhouses and aimed to bring more of this work in-house. Perdue said it had hired an outside auditor to suggest new policies. “We recognize the systemic nature of this issue and embrace any role we can play in a solution,” a Perdue spokesperson, Andrea Staub, said in a statement.
The Labor Department has also opened investigations into the companies that have been running the cleaning shifts for Perdue and Tyson in Virginia: Fayette Industrial, which works with Perdue, and QSI, which works with Tyson and is part of a conglomerate, the Vincit Group.
Fayette hired Marcos at age 13 after he arrived in Virginia from his village in Guatemala. In February 2022, he was cleaning deep inside a conveyor belt at the Perdue plant when it suddenly came to life and pulled him across the floor, tearing open his arm. He underwent three surgeries, but his arm remained limp at his side, his hand frozen in a claw.
He is one of thousands of Mexican and Central American children who have come to the United States alone since 2021 and ended up in dangerous, grueling jobs, the Times has reported in a series of articles this year.
On Wednesday, the Labor Department took the additional step of sending out an alert to hundreds of investigators nationwide about a child labor “enforcement action” against QSI. The alert outlined a clearinghouse system for tips about the company that will be run through the department’s Tennessee office, where the sanitation company is based.
Fayette and QSI said they had policies against child labor and were not aware of the federal investigations. Tyson said it planned to end its relationship with QSI at several plants, while Perdue has told Fayette that it may end its contract.
While the Labor Department has fewer than 750 investigators for more than 11 million workplaces, another federal agency – the Agriculture Department – sends inspectors into the nation’s slaughterhouses every day. The Times reported this past week that food safety inspectors regularly encountered minors working in the Virginia plants but did not believe it was their role to report child labor violations. The inspectors said they knew the children had to work to pay rent and send money back to desperate families.
A spokesperson for the Agriculture Department said the agency was retraining the nation’s nearly 8,000 food inspectors to quickly report child workers to the Labor Department.
“The use of illegal child labor – particularly requiring that children undertake dangerous tasks – is inexcusable,” said the spokesperson, Allan Rodriguez.
Lawmakers called on companies and the Biden administration to do more to get children out of slaughterhouses. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., sent a letter to Tyson Foods CEO Donnie King asking the company to commit to an independent child labor audit.
Several Democrats, including Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Rep. Hillary Scholten of Michigan, said they would push for legislation and increased funding to hold companies accountable.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.