The minor who died in a poultry factory accident got the job under the identity of a 32-year-old

The minor who died in a poultry factory accident got the job under the identity of a 32-year-old

A 16-year-old employee who died after being struck by equipment at a Mississippi poultry plant got the job using the identity of a 32-year-old man, a new discovery that highlights the ease with which migrant children find work at a Mississippi poultry plant. A dangerous industry, and the challenges companies face in trying to assess their true age.

Duvan Perez, who was hired to clean up Mar Jacs Poultry Company in Hattiesburg, which supplies companies like Chick-fil-A, died July 14. Within hours of his death, questions were raised about his real age by a local resident. Facebook news site, and it was soon determined that he was 16 years old.

It is illegal for minors to work in slaughterhouses, which OSHA considers among the most dangerous workplaces in the country.

Child Labor (@fk0_xxz via Tiktok)

Child Labor (@fk0_xxz via Tiktok)

The number of children working illegally has risen across all industries, according to the Labor Department, nearly doubling since 2019. More than 800 child labor investigations are underway in 47 states across industries, according to the agency.

NBC News culminated a yearlong investigation into child labor in America with a new documentary, “Slaughterhouse Children,” based on reporting in two countries and six states, dozens of interviews and a review of thousands of pages of public records, incident reports and internal reports. Corporate documents.

See more NBC News reporting on child laborers in slaughterhouses in the United States

While researching the documentary, Mar Jacques confirmed to NBC News that Perez used the identity of a man in his 30s.

Mar-Jacques’ attorney, Larry Stein, who showed a photo of the 16-year-old, said Perez did not look like a 32-year-old man. “But he probably looked 18,” said Stein, who has represented the Georgia-based firm since the 1990s.

Mar Jacques blamed the teen’s hiring on the staffing company that provides workers for the factory.

Child labor (Laura Strickler/NBC News)

Child labor (Laura Strickler/NBC News)

Asked if the company was surprised to learn that Perez was 16, Stein said: “Yes, they were surprised, I can tell you that. They were surprised and somewhat horrified.”

Perez’s family did not respond to a request for comment on his use of an adult identity.

Stolen identities

At least nine times over the past three years, U.S. citizens have complained to the Hattiesburg Police Department, and sometimes to Mar Jacs, about their identities being stolen and used by Mar Jacs workers, according to police reports obtained through public information requests.

Child Labor (Duvan Perez via Facebook)

Child Labor (Duvan Perez via Facebook)

One person told police in 2021 that they tried to apply for unemployment in Florida but were told their identity was being used by a Mar Jacs employee. The police report quotes the complainant’s email saying: “I called Mar-Jac Poultry to notify them and the (redacted) HR supervisor told me I couldn’t do anything without a police report and he couldn’t help me in any way.”

Another person contacted local police in 2022 saying she was unable to get child care assistance in Texas because her identity was being used by a worker at Mar Jac. “(Redacted) stated she had never lived outside of the state of Texas,” the police report said. “I called Human Resources at Mar Jacques and was told they could not give her any information and to contact the police department.”

Mar-Jac said it has reviewed its entire workforce and does not believe it employs anyone under 18. Stein said the company is limited in the amount of scrutiny it can apply to documents outside the government’s E-Verify system: “Under the way the rules are set up, we’re limited. They give us these documents, and we can’t look at them.”

Child labor (Laura Strickler/NBC News)

Child labor (Laura Strickler/NBC News)

The Department of Labor emphasizes that it is up to companies to conduct due diligence when hiring workers to determine whether they are of sufficient legal age to do the job.

After Perez’s death, the Labor Department launched an investigation into how Mar-Jacs hired a teenager and a separate OSHA investigation into the same incident. Both investigations remain ongoing.

In September, OSHA implored Mar Jacques employees in a press release to contact the agency to discuss the circumstances surrounding Perez’s death, noting that federal law protects workers’ rights to participate in the Department of Labor’s investigation.

DHS supports OSHA’s investigation, according to a DHS spokesperson. “Mar Jacques is not aware of any DHS involvement,” Stein said.

“Mar-Jac conducted a thorough investigation of the accident and found no errors committed by its safety or human resources personnel,” Stein said in an email. “It has learned many lessons from the accident and has taken aggressive steps to prevent another accident or the hiring of underage workers.”

If a company is found to have violated child labor laws, the maximum fine is $15,138 per case.

Asked if potential fines would impact how the company does business, Stein said: “I think the publicity that something like this exists is much worse than the punishment. No one wants to be seen renting to a child.”

Perez was the second person to die after becoming entangled in equipment at the factory over the past two years.

Child labor (Laura Strickler/NBC News)

Child labor (Laura Strickler/NBC News)

Gildardo Perez, Perez’s uncle, told Telemundo that he was not aware of the risks of the job and would have spoken up if he had known. “We probably would have prevented it, but we never knew if it was a dangerous mission.”

“We are reviewing our own investigation and response procedures as we take the necessary steps to effectively hold all of our suppliers to our high safety standards,” a representative for Chick-fil-A, which purchases chicken from Mar-Jac, said in a statement. “.

One Mar Jac worker said they work legally for the company and asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job, and said Chick-fil-A representatives come to visit the plant. “Supervisors advise us to do the job well because Chick-fil-A bosses will stop by to check the work,” the worker said.

Plant employees also receive a coupon for a free Chick-fil-A sandwich once a year, the worker said.

“A huge influx of boys and girls”

In the year the report was prepared, almost all examples of children working in meat processing plants across the country came from Guatemala.

Over the past two years, more than 250,000 unaccompanied children have come to the United States, and nearly half of those minors are from Guatemala.

Many of these children come from rural indigenous towns where the human trafficker, known as a “coyote,” is often a community member, experts say, and families are obligated to pay thousands of dollars in order to reach the United States.

Some of these children have found work in slaughterhouses across the country. Some of them look young but are over 18 years old. The other workers seen in the photos taken by Department of Labor investigators are clearly children.

Duvan Pérez was from a small mountain village called Huispache in western Guatemala near the Mexican border.

NBC News and Telemundo went to Huispache to learn more about what drives young people to leave the country. child migration, Including many traveling alone without their parents, this has an impact.

Data obtained from the Guatemalan Ministry of Education shows that more than 1,500 schools have closed in Guatemala over the past 15 years.

The Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment about why the closures are occurring, but one Guatemalan government agency suggests that demand for education is decreasing in part because children are leaving for the United States.

Estuardo Sanchez, who works with UNICEF in Guatemala, said the exodus of children in recent years has been significant. “It is a huge influx of boys and girls leaving the country,” he said. “Guatemala is losing its good demographic, that human resource, because the children who are leaving are the bravest, the most entrepreneurial.”

Ministry of Labor campaign

Child labor in the United States first emerged as a new concern in late fall of 2022 when the Department of Labor announced it had found more than 30 children working illegally on the graveyard shift for a company that cleans America’s largest slaughterhouses, Packers Sanitation Services Inc.

Ultimately, the Department of Labor found 102 children working for PSSI at 13 sites in eight states.

Child Labor (US Department of Labor)

Child Labor (US Department of Labor)

PSSI paid a $1.5 million civil penalty and agreed to third-party monitoring. The company confirms that it did not intentionally employ children. She said the only way to employ minors is to use stolen or fake identities to get jobs.

The company also said it has a strong commitment to a zero-tolerance policy against hiring anyone under 18, and has since “implemented enhanced screening processes and techniques” into its hiring practices.

Since the settlement with the federal government, PSSI has also appointed a new CEO and appointed its first-ever compliance officer.

Since the allegations against PSSI surfaced, other companies have also come under scrutiny.

Ohio companies Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Hearthside Food Solutions and Gerber’s Poultry are now under investigation by the Department of Labor after children were allegedly working inside their facilities. The companies said in separate statements that they are cooperating with the Department of Labor and have strict policies against hiring anyone under 18.

“Tyson Foods is committed to complying with all labor laws and holding those with whom we do business to the highest standards of accountability,” Tyson Foods wrote in a letter to senators who were investigating child labor.

“Underage labor has no place in our business,” Perdue Farms said in a public statement. We are appalled by these latest allegations because they do not represent who we are as a company and what we stand for.

A spokesperson for Hearthside Food Solutions pointed to an op-ed the company published following a New York Times investigation that said in part: “When we learned of the story, we took decisive action focused on rooting out what may have enabled underage workers hired by our staffing agencies to enter… Our facilities.

NBC News broke a story that FBI agents found more than two dozen minors working at a Gerber poultry plant in a midnight raid in October. The company said it was cooperating with federal authorities, adding: “We have formal identity verification procedures and devote significant resources to ensuring that Gerber Poultry employees and contractors are legally authorized to work.”

What federal investigators can’t do is recover the months and years that underage immigrants spent working. Pastor Joel Tocches of Dodge City, Kan., said children he met through his ministry who worked in meatpacking plants in Kansas were robbed of their childhoods. “You have to act like an adult. You have to act like an adult. You have to perform like an adult. And if you mess up, you’ll be treated like an adult.”

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