Keith Nunes 2019

KANSAS CITY — It is distressing to think that in 2023 an editorial is appearing in this publication about child labor in US food and beverage manufacturing. Yet here it is.

In February the US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division fined Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI), a company that provides contract sanitation services to meat and poultry processors, $1.5 million in civil penalties for employing at least 102 children ranging in ages from 13 to 17.

An investigation that began in August 2022 found the children were cleaning meat processing equipment with hazardous chemicals, and some were working overnight shifts. When the DOL served warrants to those involved, the adults who recruited, hired and supervised the children tried to disrupt the investigation.

“The child labor violations in this case were systemic and reached across eight states, and clearly indicate a corporate-wide failure by Packers Sanitation Services at all levels,” said Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator of the Wage and Hour Division. “These children should never have been employed in meat packing plants, and this can only happen when employers do not take responsibility to prevent child labor violations from occurring in the first place.”

The PSSI scandal, while concerning, could be attributed to a single actor, but a week later an expose in The New York Times revealed many other business, including Hearthside Food Solutions, also employed children. Production facilities operated by Hearthside in Grand Rapids, Mich., were featured in the Times story.

A letter from Hearthside chief executive officer Darlene Nicosia in response to the story said the company has a longstanding requirement that everyone working the company’s production facilities must be at least 18 years old and that the company goes “to great lengths to vet our workforce and ensure they comply with relevant laws and the agencies we partner with do so as well.”

The central theme of the Times story is systemic failures in immigration policy created opportunities for criminals to exploit vulnerable migrant children. But the story also makes clear there are opportunists willing to benefit from the employment of the exploited.

It may be easy for others to look at the PSSI and Hearthside situations and believe it could not happen within their organizations. But as Ms. Nicosia’s letter shows, there may be vulnerabilities in even the most stringent employment policies.

There are many layers within the food manufacturing ecosystem. While certain elements of the system fall within a company’s direct control, others are contracted out to third parties that may specialize in a service or the production of a product. Within each layer are vulnerabilities that may undermine even the best policies. Case in point, while Hearthside Food’s Michigan facilities were implicated in the Times story, it was manufacturing products for companies like General Mills and PepsiCo.

Children do not belong in the workforce, especially manufacturing. There is little companies can do to fix a broken immigration system that unintentionally contributes to the trafficking and exploitation of children. What every business can and must do is redouble efforts to ensure their organizations and those they engage with do not contribute to this disturbing problem.