The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is investigating whether children who were illegally employed as night sanitation workers at slaughterhouses in the Midwest are victims of human trafficking, according to officials cited by NBC News.
DHS officials told NBC the department is not investigating the company that hired the children, Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI). They are working to rule out the possibility that outside traffickers forced the children to work at the plants in order to collect profits, the network reported.
U.S. Labor Department officials said at least 31 children as young as 13 were working at five facilities through PSSI, including JBS Foods plants in Grand Island, Nebraska and Worthington, Minnesota. Some worked at the facilities overnight and had burns on their hands because of exposure to cleaning chemicals, investigators found.
As a result of the Labor Department’s investigation, a federal judge issued a consent order last month ordering PSSI to stop violating child labor laws, as well as bring in a compliance specialist and take other measures to ensure federal law is followed. According to the U.S. Labor Department’s standards of employment, children under 18 cannot be employed to operate or clean power-driven meat processing machines.
The Labor Department’s investigation first began in August, but the claims of child labor at meat plants using PSSI workers date back to 2016, NBC News reported.
Homeland Security officials told NBC their investigation was not spurred by specific accusations of trafficking, but instead by the high number of migrant minors who cleaned the facilities. In response to an inquiry about the reported investigation, Homeland Security declined to comment.
JBS ended its contract with the sanitation company, the Brazilian meat giant told NBC News. Tyson Foods, which has also employed cleaners through PSSI, has not thus far, according to NBC. JBS and Tyson did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
The largest meat processors have been regularly criticized for labor practices and worker safety since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when at least 269 workers contracted the virus and died, according to a Congressional report.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a response from the Department of Homeland Security.