In something reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” slaughterhouses in Nebraska and Minnesota have been exposed for using children as overnight sanitation workers. A JBS USA plant in Worthington, Minnesota, another in Grand Island, Nebraska, as well as a Turkey Valley plant in Marshall, Minnesota, were all found to have contracted Packer Sanitation Services Inc. for their overnight cleaning crews. In these three plants, PSSI allegedly had at least 31 minors working to clean killing floors and butcher equipment with the youngest of them only 13 years old.
PSSI was having these children work up to as many as seven days a week on the graveyard shift, starting at 11:00 p.m. and finishing just before school started in the morning. The ongoing investigation by the Department of Labor found that not only were the children either falling asleep during school or missing it entirely, but at least two had suffered burns from hazardous chemicals.
Despite the ongoing investigation yielding evidence suggesting that PSSI may be exploiting as many as 400 children in meat-packing plants across the United States, the Department of Labor has only issued a court order demanding that PSSI comply with the investigation and immediately cease its employment of children. No order to cease all operations was issued and the current order is only in effect until the next hearing on Nov. 23, when it could be extended or canceled. This is not enough, especially when taking into consideration PSSI’s long history of worker endangerment and neglect of safety procedures.
Workers’ rights put last
PSSI is no stranger to flagrant violations of safety procedures and worker endangerment. Within the last four or so years, four workers have sustained grievous bodily injury resulting in amputation, while another three have died on the job. Neglect of safety procedures was so flagrant that one of the workers who died was beheaded while cleaning slaughterhouse equipment. This incident occurred while OSHA was in the process of conducting at least 56 investigations into PSSI, producing more than three dozen citations.
It is clear that PSSI has a long history of intentional and systemic violations of workers’ rights and predatory practices. The ongoing Department of Labor investigation showed that one of PSSI’s managers at their Worthington, Minnesota, office had proposed over text message the use of fake identification as means of bypassing child labor protections. It is also very likely that hiring managers at PSSI had intentionally targeted Latino minors, as all the children found being exploited by PSSI are primarily Spanish speakers. This becomes even more disgusting considering that 59% of PSSI’s legal workforce is white, and 65% of their management team is white. They intentionally preyed upon the Latino community to maximize profits through the racist exploitation of children.
Capitalism has always exploited the labor of children
Child labor has always been a feature of capitalism, and the recent revelations about PSSI’s use of child labor are just the latest in a never-ending stream of exposés and investigations. Children were common in the industrial workforce prior to the 1930s, with many children missing out on their education, suffering injuries and even dying. Despite the struggle of labor organizers in the 1930s, child labor laws in the United States do not outright ban child labor, but only prohibit those under the age of 14 from working nonagricultural jobs and put limits on the hours and types of jobs that minors can work.
In the modern era, many U.S. companies have moved their production overseas to countries with little to no labor protections in the effort to maximize profits through the hyper-exploitation of workers. More often than not, these mines and sweatshops are rife with horrendous conditions, safety violations and child labor. In the 1990s, Nike was at the center of a wave of protests and controversy after Life Magazine reported on their use of child labor in Pakistan. More recently, chocolate giant Hershey was at the center of a lawsuit alleging the use of child slaves on cocoa plantations in West Africa. The cosmetic industry is also guilty of sourcing the mineral, mica, which gives their products a kind of shine, from mines in India and Madagascar that have been reported to exploit the labor of children.
In January 2022, in PSSI’s home state of Wisconsin no less, there was a push by both the Republicans and businesses to re-expand the use of child labor. The bill that passed the State Senate and State Assembly proposed allowing children as young as 14 years old to work until 11:00 p.m. during the summer. Luckily, the bill failed to make it past the governor’s desk, but it does show a growing push by the capitalist class to re-expand child labor in the wake of the growing post-pandemic labor surge.
More attempts by employers to expand the use of children in the workforce will certainly follow. This is the nature of capitalism and has been since its inception, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can demand an end to child labor. We can demand that companies like PSSI be held accountable. We can demand that our safety be a priority at work. A better future is possible.