Federal investigators are looking into whether 50 children — some as young as 13 — who were allegedly illegally employed cleaning Midwestern slaughterhouses were victims of labor trafficking, three officials from the Department of Homeland Security told NBC News.
Homeland Security Investigations agents have interviewed children who worked cleaning a JBS Foods slaughterhouse in Grand Island, Nebraska, the officials say.
There is no indication DHS is investigating the company that hired the children, Packers Sanitation Services Inc., or PSSI, for human trafficking. Instead, said two DHS officials, DHS is investigating to rule out the possibility that outside traffickers may have forced children to work for PSSI and profited off their labor.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, a division of DHS, said, “Due to an ongoing investigation, Homeland Security Investigations cannot comment at this time,” and referred questions to the U.S. Labor Department.
In December, as a result of an investigation by the Labor Department and a civil suit filed against the company by the government, PSSI agreed to a consent order with the department and agreed to abide by child labor laws. Labor investigators had found a total of 50 children working for PSSI in at least five locations, including the Grand Island plant and a second JBS Foods plant in Worthington, Minnesota.
Federal officials argued the company violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, which prohibits “oppressive child labor” and minors from working in any kind of hazardous employment, according to the complaint from December. The Labor Department’s Child Labor Regulations designate many roles in slaughterhouse and meatpacking facilities as hazardous for minors.
In court filings, the company did not deny hiring children but attributed it to “rogue individuals” who presented fake identification with Social Security numbers that were verified by the federal government’s E-Verify system.
The Labor Department says its investigation, which began in August, is ongoing as it scours company records from 50 locations.
Gina Swenson, a spokesperson for PSSI, said investigators from Homeland Security Investigations have not contacted the company. “We have not been contacted by DHS and have no knowledge that any such investigation exists,” she said.
“We have always taken rigorous steps to comply with the law, including use of the government’s E-Verify system for new hires, extensive training for all hiring managers, multiple audits, and use of biometrics,” Swenson said. “Our compliance plans are also modeled after the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recommended best practices.”
Homeland Security Investigations’ inquiry into possible human trafficking was triggered by the large numbers of migrant minors involved in the case and not necessarily by specific allegations of trafficking, two DHS officials say.
PSSI’s 17,000 employees clean the largest meat processing plants in America for household brands at 700 sites across the country.
Local officials and advocates in Grand Island and Worthington say they have noticed an increase in the number of Spanish-speaking unaccompanied minors in their areas in recent years, an observation supported by Health and Human Services data. The youngest person found to be cleaning slaughterhouses for PSSI was 13.
The children who worked for PSSI attended school during the day and worked overnight facing dangerous conditions, with some as young as 13 and 14 found to have chemical burns on their hands from exposure to strong cleaning chemicals, according to court documents the government filed in its lawsuit against PSSI and a local police report previously obtained and reported by NBC News.
According to four former PSSI employees, cleaning conditions inside the meatpacking plants are treacherous. A former PSSI compliance officer who still works in the industry and did not want to be identified said the “kill floors” in meatpacking plants have a slippery combination of hot water, animal fat and soap that she likened to an ice rink.
Swenson of PSSI said worker safety “has been the [company’s] highest priority.”
“Because of our work,” she said, “all our team members must wear personal protective equipment from head to toe (e.g., hard hat, face shield, goggles, aprons, gloves, boots, etc.).”
In 2020 a PSSI worker at an Alabama Tyson chicken plant was rinsing equipment with a high-pressure water hose when he leaned too far into the machine and was caught by the machinery and decapitated. Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials cited the company for the accident.
Swenson said that the death of the employee was “profoundly sad and tragic” but that PSSI’s investigation of the accident “unfortunately revealed that this employee started cleaning the energized equipment without a supervisor present — meaning existing PSSI safety protocols were not followed.”
JBS Foods cancels contracts
Fallout from the Labor Department’s child labor investigation and the company’s consent order with the federal government has been swift.
JBS Foods canceled its contracts with PSSI in Grand Island and Worthington, which led to layoffs of hundreds of workers. Tyson Foods has not canceled its contract. It said in a statement to NBC News: “We are actively engaging our supplier community to conduct a detailed review of their processes to ensure Tyson’s rigorous standards are being met.”
Swenson confirmed that JBS had canceled two contracts. “As we’ve made clear from the start, PSSI has an absolute company-wide prohibition against the employment of anyone under the age of 18 and zero tolerance for any violation of that policy — period. PSSI strives to be the leader in food safety solutions and is committed to ensuring our customers can depend on us as experts at what we do.”
But Audrey Lutz, the executive director of a local Nebraska nonprofit group called the Multicultural Coalition, which has been helping the children in Grand Island with services, believes significant fines from the federal government are needed. “This has been going on quite a while. I don’t anticipate unless there are severe ramifications for this that it will actually change policies.”
The Labor Department has issued no penalties or fines to date. The company is required to report back to Labor in mid-January with the names of any employees it terminated because they were under 18. A Labor Department spokesperson said the numbers of child employees who were terminated will not be disclosed while the case remains open.
Questions about child labor at PSSI in Grand Island and Worthington are not new.
A Worthington police report from 2018 obtained by NBC News shows a PSSI employee who was a local high school student was arrested for identity theft. The worker told police he was 17 years old. He had a pay stub from his employment at PSSI and was ultimately released because police could not determine his real age.
Swenson of PSSI said, “We have made clear that the only way that someone could circumvent our rigorous procedures is through deliberate identity theft or fraud.”
As NBC News previously reported, a 2016 Nebraska police report documented how a middle school official called local police because a 14-year-old student had caustic burns on her hands. A police spokesperson said the injuries were from her overnight PSSI job. Local police investigated it as potential child abuse by the guardian for allowing the child to work at the plant; no one was ultimately charged.
In 2015, federal investigators started looking into allegations that PSSI employed child labor to clean a third JBS facility in the small town of Liberal, Kansas, according to court records. But the investigation stopped in 2017 after PSSI did not cooperate with the Labor Department and “did not provide all records as requested,” according to an affidavit from a federal investigator filed in court.
Swenson said, “We categorically dispute this claim related to this Kansas site and more broadly: PSSI has a long history of fully cooperating and complying with DOL investigations, including three separate DOL investigations that the company closed in the summer of 2022 with no violations.”
Unaccompanied minors as workers
Advocates and lawyers for the children say some of the child workers for PSSI were unaccompanied minors who recently came across the southern border. Unaccompanied minors are processed by the Border Patrol and then turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services. The children are then matched with sponsors who usually have some link to their families.
Rural counties where the Labor Department found children working in PSSI facilities have become home to hundreds of unaccompanied minors living with sponsors since 2015, according to data collected and released by HHS. Advocates and officials are concerned that some of the minors may be working in the counties’ significant livestock industry.
In Grand Island, where children were found to be working in the JBS plant, the number of unaccompanied minors has ebbed and flowed over the years. In 2016, 63 were released to sponsors. Then there were none until 2019, when 71 arrived. In 2021, 90 children arrived and then 89 more in 2022.
In Nobles County, Minnesota, where the Labor Department says children were found working for PSSI at the Worthington JBS plant, federal data shows 613 children have been released to sponsors since 2015. The city of Worthington has fewer than 14,000 residents, and Nobles County as a whole has just 22,000.
Drawing on HHS data, The Washington Post reported that from 2013 to 2019, Nobles County received the second-highest total unaccompanied migrant minors per capita of any U.S. county.
Worthington City Administrator Steve Robinson said city officials have been wondering how the children found their way to their rural community.
“We want to make sure that no one is taking advantage of these kids. We are worried about their well-being,” he said.
David Bosma works in the livestock industry in Worthington and has been active in local school issues. He told NBC News that he was not surprised when the Labor Department’s investigation came to light, because community members already had questions about the influx of unaccompanied minors. “Nobody understood where these kids were coming from,” he said.
Advocates and lawyers have expressed concern that children who are without their parents and do not speak English could be at risk.
“There is a large number of unaccompanied minors in our state with very little resources, and without public, private or philanthropic resources these kids go off the radar and become very, very vulnerable to things like trafficking,” Lutz said.