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October 2023, Volume 29, Number 4

Meat and Migrants

A 16-year-old Guatemalan died in a Mar-Jac Poultry plant in Mississippi in July 2023, re-igniting a debate over the US policy of sending foreign youth under 18 who are encountered just inside the Mexico-US border to sponsors who may not be their relatives.

Over 300,000 minors, most from Central America, entered the US between 2021 and 2023. Half travel to distant relatives settled in the US, many of whom expect them to work and to pay rent, which encourages the teens to find jobs.

Mar-Jac hired workers via staffing firms, and said it did not know the 16-year-old was under age. DOL reported that violations of child labor laws rose by over 50 percent between 2015 and 2022. HHS was criticized for not vetting the US sponsors of under-18 migrants, and state legislatures have been criticized for relaxing regulations that prohibit youth under 18 from working in dangerous jobs.

A 14-year-old Guatemalan who lost an arm at a Perdue Farms poultry processing plant in Parksley in Virginia’s eastern shore was sent to the US by his parents to work in the US. Using false documents that said he was 20, he was hired by Tennessee-based Fayette Industrial and earned $100 for a six-hour overnight cleaning shift. The injury kept the teen from working, leaving his parents with unpaid smuggling debts.

Community members who knew about the injury did not contact DOL. Some said that they knew teens were filling dangerous jobs cleaning chicken processing plants, but they also knew that the teens had to earn money to send to their parents.

DOL in September 2023 announced an investigation into child labor cleaning poultry processing plants. Most plants rely on third party cleaning services; one question is whether the owners of the plants being cleaned are liable for labor law violations. Tyson announced that it would begin to employ cleaners directly.

Tyson, which employs 124,000 US workers to process about 20 percent of US beef, chicken and pork, is closing several chicken plants and eliminating 3,000 jobs. Beef accounts for 40 percent of Tyson’s revenue.

Good Meat and Upside Foods produce meat from cells rather than animals. Lab-grown meat or cell-cultivated meat is often billed as a solution to both slowing climate change and feeding ever more people, since less land is needed to produce feed for animals.

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