Alabama poultry plant could be closed for 30 days for allegedly hiring minors

A poultry plant in Jasper, Alabama, has been accused of hiring minors and could be shut down for 30 days, according to a newly released US Department of Labor lawsuit.

Mar-Jac Poultry, the largest employer in Walker county, is accused of violating federal labor laws when it hired four minors as young as 16 who were allegedly discovered working overnight at the company’s slaughterhouse.

Mar-Jac is the same firm that was found to be directly responsible for the death of a 16-year-old at a plant in neighboring Mississippi last summer. In May 2021, a Mar-Jac employee was killed when he was pinned “partially under” a machine after it snagged his sleeve.

In the case of the four minors, the labor department is asking a judge to shut the plant down for 30 days based on statutes that prohibit companies from profiting from child labor.

Six teenagers were working in the Jasper chicken plant for months using forged documents after passing the E-Verify system that is used to make sure a person is authorized to work legally, according to the suit filed.

The company has said the employees were terminated after being discovered, and that they were not working around slaughtering machinery, only in chicken-hanging and wing-removal areas, which is not prohibited by federal regulations.

The company is arguing that if it is shut down, it would be forced to lay off more than 1,000 workers for that period and slaughter millions of chickens and bury them in landfills.

But on Friday, another teen was killed while operating equipment at a Mar-Jac plant neat Hattiesburg, Mississippi, WDAM-TV reported. The 16-year-old was reportedly killed while working in the plant’s sanitation operations.

Mar-Jac has said it has taken steps recommended in a new “best practices” document for meat-processing companies released by the Meat Institute, an industry trade group, that was recently published after the hiring of children to work in slaughterhouses became a prominent labor-rights issue.

“The members of the Meat Institute are universally aligned that meat and poultry production facilities are no place for children,” the Meat Institute president, Julie Anna Potts, wrote in the preface to the guideline document.

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The labor department has said that slaughterhouse work is too dangerous for minors and they are prohibited from working in that sector by federal regulations. Federal law, however, does not categorically prohibit it in all cases.

“The poultry industry has zero tolerance for the hiring of minors,” Tom Super, a spokesperson for the National Chicken Council, told NBC. He said the council, which includes Mar-Jac, had formed a taskforce to prevent child labor, which it considers a “non-competitive” issue.

“Unfortunately, in most of these cases, minors are hired even when using all of the required government-screening programs and the applicants appear to be of legal age,” Super added, noted that the challenges “are not unique to the poultry industry”.


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