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April 2023, Volume 29, Number 2

Meat: Children, ICE

Wisconsin-based Packers Sanitation Services in February 2023 paid $1.5 million in penalties to DOL, the maximum penalty of $15,000 for each of the 100 children between the ages of 13 and 17 hired to clean at 13 meatpacking facilities around the US. Packers employs 16,500 workers, says it does not hire workers under 18, and terminated the managers who had hired the under-18 year olds.

Packers, which is owned by private equity firm Blackstone, uses E-Verify to check the legal status of new hires. E-Verify does not check age, only eligibility to work in the US.

Some 130,000 unaccompanied children under 18 illegally crossed the Mexico-US border in 2022 and applied for asylum; most were released into the care of relatives, some of whom they have never met. Many are from Central America, and once in the US, many are under pressure to earn money and remit to relatives at home.

Worthington, Minnesota received more unaccompanied children per capita than any other city, including many who worked for Packers cleaning a local JBS plant.

Staffing agencies often supply workers to Packers and other food-related plants, including those that pack private-label foods. The agencies say that under-age children present false documents showing that they are 18 or older. Children are often encouraged to work by adults to pay off smuggling debts and send remittances to families at home.

The three usual responses to child labor are better enforcement of labor laws and carefully monitoring supply chains, so that firms that rely on staffing agencies require them to check documentation. One factor unique to migrant children is the sponsor system that releases children who illegally enter the US and apply for asylum to nonfamily members from their home countries who may exploit the children. Advocates oppose detaining migrant children and instead call for more careful monitoring of sponsors.

The Biden administration faces a trade-off between keeping unaccompanied children in custody or releasing them to relatives who may exploit them. HHS is responsible for locating relatives in the US and releasing children to them, and reportedly pressures staff to release the children quickly. Some settled Central Americans sponsor dozens of children, and a few have been convicted of trafficking the children in order to profit from their US work.

DOL has fewer than 900 investigators to enforce federal labor laws. The number of investigators peaked at 1,200 in FY73, and has fluctuated between 800 and 1,000 in recent years. In response to the child migrant cases, DOL said that it would target enforcement on industries most likely to employ children.

ICE. ICE agents detained almost 100 immigrants at the Southeastern Provision meatpacking plant in Bean Station, Tennessee in April 2018. The raid was authorized to help the IRS to determine that the workers were being paid in cash to avoid taxes.

The workers sued under the Federal Tort Claims Act, alleging that the ICE agents used racial profiling and excessive force when detaining workers. In February 2023, the US government agreed to pay $1.2 million to workers who were detained during the raid, an average $5,700 each.

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are laying off up to 20 percent of their workers in a bid to achieve profitability. The question is whether plant-based meat substitutes can expand beyond those who are willing to pay extra to avoid cruelty to animals and reduce carbon emissions.

Dollar stores have thousands of outlets in rural and agricultural areas, including 19,000 operated by Dollar General, three-fourths in towns with fewer than 20,000 residents. Some town leaders oppose dollar stores, arguing that they provide only low-wage jobs and hurt established local businesses.

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