Sanitation company allegedly used child labor to clean slaughterhouses

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A Wisconsin industrial cleaning company is accused of illegally using child workers, including one who was 13, to clean meat processing plants in Minnesota and Nebraska.

According to a civil complaint filed by the U.S. Labor Department in the U.S. District Court of Nebraska, Packers Sanitation Services Inc. employed more than 30 children, ages 13 to 17, as cleaners in JBS USA meatpacking plants in Grand Island, Nebraska, and Worthington, Minnesota, and at Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall, Minnesota. Federal labor law prohibits the use of workers under age 18 on killing floors or on mechanized processing equipment because the work is a federally designated “hazardous occupation.”

The company is accused of violating federal labor laws by employing at least one worker under the age of 14 to clean a slaughtering and meatpacking plant, employing children under age 15 to work overnight shifts during the school year and employing workers under age 18 to work on the killing floor and to clean power-driven machines.

The Labor Department said several under-age PSSI employees were injured on the job, including a 13-year-old who was burned by caustic cleaning chemicals.

PSSI is based in Kieler, Wisconsin. The company describes itself as a “leading provider of food safety solutions.” According to its website, PSSI employs 17,000 people to provide cleaning and other services to more than 700 food-processing plants.

In a statement, PSSI said it has an “absolute company-wide prohibition against the employment of anyone under the age of 18 and zero tolerance for any violation of that policy – period.”

The company suggested that underage workers may have misrepresented their ages to gain employment.

“PSSI has industry-leading, best-in-class procedures to confirm the identities of its employees − including mandatory use of the Government’s E-verify system for new hires, as well as extensive training, document verification, biometrics, and multiple layers of audits,” the company said.  “While rogue individuals could of course seek to engage in fraud or identity theft, we are confident in our company’s strict compliance policies and will defend ourselves vigorously against these claims.”

The company said it has cooperated with investigators and will continue to do so.

However, a federal judge on Thursday approved a temporary restraining order prohibiting PSSI from employing anyone under 18 in hazardous roles and ordering the company to preserve documents and not interfere with investigators or attempt to influence workers to not cooperate with Labor Department investigators.

In its request for the restraining order, the Labor Department claimed PSSI employees intimidated underage workers to discourage them from cooperating with investigators and at least one employee deleted or manipulated employment records.

“Taking advantage of children, exposing them to workplace dangers – and interfering with a federal investigation – demonstrates Packers Sanitation Services Inc.’s flagrant disregard for the law and for the well-being of young workers,” said Michael Lazzeri, regional administrator for the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, in a statement.

The investigation began in late August following tips that PSSI was violating child labor laws. Investigators executed warrants at the three plants, the local PSSI’s offices that serve them and PSSI’s Wisconsin headquarters, according to court documents.

Labor Department spokesperson Scott Allen said the department’s investigation has since expanded beyond the three plants.

“The investigation is nationwide right now,” Allen said.

In a statement, Colorado-based JBS USA said it is launching its own “independent, third-party audit at all of our facilities to thoroughly evaluate this situation.”

“We take seriously the allegations against PSSI which, if true, represent a clear violation of our ethical policies,” the company said.

Contact Karl Ebert at Follow him on Twitter at @karlwebert.

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