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Child labor laws under scrutiny following teen’s death at Hattiesburg chicken plant

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A truck loaded with chickens passes Koch Foods Inc., plant in Morton, Miss., Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, following Wednesday's raid by U.S. immigration officials. The raids were part of a large-scale operation targeting owners as well as undocumented employees.
(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

When Duvan Tomas Perez died from a mechanical accident at the Hattiesburg plant, he was cleaning chicken processing equipment that federal and state labor laws prohibit him from handling as a minor. 

Further, Mississippi law forbids minors from working in chicken or other meat processing plants whatsoever.  

It's the third death from an equipment accident at the same plant in three years, and it raises questions regarding national labor laws regulating minors in the workplace. According to a study conducted by Columbia Law School, child labor law violations across the United States have increased by 283% since 2015.  

The facility's owner, Mar-Jac poultry, said they were unaware of Perez’s real age when he was hired — but Perez's family is now demanding the United States Department of Labor investigate both the plant and his death. 

“We want to state very clearly that Duvan's death was preventable, and it should never have happened. We must bring the Mar-Jac poultry plant owners to justice,” said Nadia Marin Molina, a worker rights program coordinator at the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

“They cannot get away with continuing the abuse, which has been their pattern for so long. And they can't get away with shifting the blame to Duvan, to his family or to the agencies that work for them.” 

The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division is currently investigating the plant for child labor law violations, in addition to a statement of interest probing Perez’s death announced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration last Friday.

Indigenous identity

Perez and his family moved six years ago from the town of Huispache, part of the Guatamala’s northern highlands that nearly two-dozen indigenous Mayan communities call home. 

For more than 60 years, the primarily indigenous residents of that region have migrated in large numbers to the United States to flee genocide, land evictions and most recently, prolonged droughts due to climate change. 

Emil’ Keme, a K’iche’ Maya scholar, says that migration by these groups into the United States often carries with it an extra burden: Mmany arrive speaking neither English nor Spanish, but their native language instead. 

Combined with workplace prejudice by non-indigenous Hispanic workers, those language barriers can often make the process of reporting abuses even more difficult. 

“As we see in the case of Duvan, the discrimination within the workplace for being indigenous is profound. And so those are issues that we have to take into account and understand, and it’s imperative that we understand them from indigenous perspectives,” he said.

In this this Aug. 7, 2019 file photo, a trailer loaded with chickens passes a federal agent outside a Koch Foods Inc., plant in Morton, Miss., following an immigration raid. Federal officials announced Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020, the indictments of four executives from two Mississippi poultry processing plants on federal charges tied to one of the largest workplace immigration raids in the U.S. in the past decade.
(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

A systemic issue

An incident report says Perez was pulled into a piece of power-driven processing equipment while working as a nighttime custodian. He was heard yelling for help before he perished. The two previous deaths at the facility – in which owner Mar-Jac was fined $7,000 and $28,000 respectively — also involved employees becoming trapped and ultimately killed by machinery. 

While still being contested by the Georgia-based company in court, those fines only add to the nearly $380,000 in fines levied by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2009 for other safety violations

Efren Nunez, Operating Director at the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity of Mississippi, traveled to Hattiesburg to speak with workers at the same Mar-Jac facility where Perez was killed. 

“I've heard reports of many workers who are indigenous — Mayan who are made to work double or triple the shifts in comparison to the other ethnic groups,” he said. “Many workers share that the work is heavy and often dangerous, and that injuries are common.I also hear reports of sexual harassment, abuse and of woman being told to sleep with their supervisor. I heard this report repeatedly.” 

A former Mississippi poultry plant worker himself, Nunez says the same issues he faced more than 20 years ago remain — such as a lack of proper training, exposure to dangerous chemicals and the ever-looming threat of immigration raids. 

He also says that while it’s clear the facility in question has a long-running issue of child labor law violations, immigrant families often put their children to work as a way to make ends meet.

“I heard from many parents that they want their kid in the school, but many families are stuck in an impossible situation trying to make ends meet,” he said. “Latino and indigenous people have been working and having these problems forever, and it's going to continue to happen until we put attention for this not to happen again.”

Baldomero Orozco, also a poultry plant worker from Guatemala but much older than Perez, says he and the rest of the grieving community are relying on a recent promise from the Biden Administration to improve labor rights and workplace protections across the country. 

“So many things happen in these poultry plants, including things like wage theft and so many other abuses. This is the moment where we need to raise our voices and demand our rights are respected, because we know the Biden Administration has made a commitment to workplace protection,” he said.  

“So we ask that he keeps this promise. We don’t want another tragedy like the one our community is living through.”

In this Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, file photo, handcuffed workers are escorted into a bus for transportation to a processing center following a raid by U.S. immigration officials at a Koch Foods Inc., plant in Morton, Miss. Three months after immigration agents arrested 680 Latino workers in a massive workplace sting at seven Mississippi chicken processing plants, a congressional committee plans a hearing into the raids and their effects, Thursday, Nov. 7, in Jackson, Miss.
(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

‘Pattern of exploitation’

In Hattiesburg, much like the rest of rural southern and central Mississippi, many migrants from South and Central America relocate for work in meat processing facilities and farms. 

But after record-setting immigration raids in 2019, workers are afraid to report workplace abuses for fear of being deported themselves, says Lorena Quiroz, director of the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity of Mississippi.

“This young man who should have been at this time planning to go back to school, enjoying the excitement of the end of the summer, but instead is no longer with us, said Quiroz.

“Duvan was killed because of the negligence of a company that has a pattern of exploitation in the meat and poultry industry in Mississippi. The family and the community is terrified to speak to government officials because of the raids, because of the threats, because of the racism that surrounds these small towns in Mississippi.” 

Over the course of one day in August 2019, nearly 700 agricultural processing plant workers – all of them undocumented immigrants – were arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement between the towns of Morton, Carthage and Canton, among others. 

Officials at the time said the raids were the end product of a multi-year investigation probing the undocumented labor market in Mississippi. 

Agricultural and meat processing plants in Mississippi have long relied on immigrant workers from Latin America to fill much of their labor force, especially after African American workers began organizing for higher pay and improved workplace conditions. 

Between 1990 and 2000, Scott County’s Hispanic population increased by more than 1,000%. Following an advertising campaign targeting immigrant communities in south Florida, Texas and Mexico, more than 5,000 relocated to the Morton area in the span of a few years for work in chicken plants while the South became the nation’s fastest-growing Hispanic population. 

Despite that, renewed immigration enforcement efforts began targeting Mississippi’s large poultry processing industry, pitting those same immigrant communities between reporting workplace abuses and the almost guaranteed assurance of arrest and deportation. 

“CLASP uncovered not only the trauma and devastation, but also a deeply rooted pattern of abuse and injustice against immigrant workers by the poultry plants across Mississippi,” she said. “Several minors were arrested in those raids as well, and all workers we spoke with reported unsafe and troubling workplace policies and conditions. In short, these are work environments that are unfit for adults, much less for minors.”

In light of those findings, Cervantes says CLASP and activists in Mississippi are calling for substantial increases in federal penalties for child labor violations, especially when those violations lead to the injury or death of a minor. 

They’re also asking that a portion of those fines – relatively light when compared to a typical poultry plant businesses’ yearly income – be directed toward victims’ families, and that labor violations be prosecuted at all levels of the employment chain. 

“The large corporations that sit at the helm of the employment structures that hire children must be held accountable, even if they are not the employer of record. The temporary staffing firms or third party employers of record utilized by companies as well as contractors and subcontractors should all be held accountable for any violations as well,” she said.