Members of the Food Chain Workers Alliance protested child labor at Tyson Foods’ Springdale headquarters on October 16, 2023. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)
A coalition of North American worker organizations on Monday marched to Tyson Foods headquarters in Springdale where participants urged the company to treat workers with dignity and respect.
Magaly Licolli, executive director of Venceremos, a Springdale-based nonprofit supporting poultry workers, said holding Tyson accountable for underaged children working in its facilities was one focus of the demonstration.
The U.S. Department of Labor is investigating if Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms, which produce about a third of the poultry sold in the United States, used migrant children to clean slaughterhouses. Federal officials opened the investigation after The New York Times Magazine published an article on migrant children working overnight shifts in September.
In February, a company responsible for cleaning meatpacking plants across the country paid nearly $91,000 in penalties for using six minors at a Tyson Foods facility in Green Forest. The fine was part of $1.5 million in civil penalties Packers Sanitation Services Inc., paid for making children as young as 13 work in dangerous conditions.
Packers Sanitation Services Inc. also paid a fine of more than $60,500 for using four minors at a George’s Inc. plant in Batesville.
“I know that Tyson has claimed that they didn’t hire those workers, but they cannot just avoid responsibility to not look into what is going on within their supply chain,” Licolli said.
The penalties were a result of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor into 13 plants owned by various companies in eight states that found more than 100 minors, ranging from 13 to 17 years old, spent overnight shifts cleaning equipment like head splitters, and were exposed to dangerous chemicals.
Less than two weeks after the Department of Labor announced the fines, Arkansas lawmakers approved the Youth Hiring Act, which removes the requirement for children under 16 to prove their age and obtain written permission from a parent to get a job. The bill’s lead sponsor were two Republicans who represent portions of Springdale — Sen. Clint Penzo and Rep. Rebecca Burkes.
Arkansas law prohibits children under 16 from working more than eight hours a day, more than six days a week and more than 48 hours per week.
Licolly said Tyson didn’t make a public statement against the bill, “which makes us think that they are really benefiting from that because the kids are working within their supply chain.”
Tyson did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
Several participants at Monday’s rally were attending an annual Food Chain Workers Alliance summit in Springdale. Alliance members delivered a letter addressed to Tyson President and CEO Donnie King expressing concerns about the increase in assembly line speeds, worker injuries and illegal employment of children at U.S. meat processing facilities.
“Children, including migrant children, should never be exploited for their labor or subjected to the dangerous working conditions in Tyson plants and in your supply chain,” the letter reads. “We know that Tyson has a no tolerance policy when it comes to illegal child labor, but it’s unclear how Tyson ensures accountability to that commitment, because the Company does not disclose that information.”
U.S. House Democrats introduced a bill in June to increase penalties for employers who knowingly violate child labor laws. The Protecting Children Act, which would also prevent states from easing federal child labor standards, comes as multiple states have passed laws that roll back child labor laws.
U.S. Department of Labor investigations have found a steady increase in child labor violations since 2015.
Mina, who asked that her last name not be used, attended Monday’s rally as a representative of the Workers’ Center of Central New York, a workers’ rights organization whose members are mostly immigrant agricultural workers. The intersection of workers’ rights and migrants is huge in the U.S., she said.
“In New York we have a lot of issues with our dairy farms and things like that,” she said. “The conditions are horrible for our workers and no one speaks out about it, so we’re there to organize the workers and make sure they know their rights.”
Licolly said community members have told her about groups of migrant children coming to Arkansas to work on chicken farms, including indigenous children from Guatemala, and she plans to ask the Department of Labor to investigate.
Completing an investigation will be difficult though, she said, because of the language barrier — the indigenous children don’t speak English or Spanish — and because workers are “truly terrified” to come forward.
“The majority of those workers are undocumented [and are] really truly afraid to speak up,” Licolly said. “They are truly vulnerable and intimidated if they speak up.”
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