California poultry processors face preliminary injunction for violating child labor laws

Dive Brief:

  • A federal court approved a preliminary injunction forbidding three poultry companies in California from violating a range of child labor and wage laws after an investigation uncovered workers under the age of 16 were using sharp knives to debone and cut chicken.
  • An amended preliminary injunction, filed Oct. 26, prohibits Tony Elvis Bran and four other associates who operate a single enterprise comprising The Exclusive Poultry, Inc., Valtierra Poultry LLC and Meza Poultry LLC, from violating child labor regulations, harassing labor investigators and from retaliating against employees. It also prevents the shipment of any “hot goods” processed over the past 30 days where child labor was used or handled by workers not paid overtime.
  • The action comes months after the U.S. Department of Labor brought claims against the defendants and the Biden administration took steps to crack down on an uptick in child labor. Counsel representing Bran declined to immediately respond to a request for comment.

Dive Insight:

Since 2020, the number of children being employed illegally by companies has doubled to 5,792, according to Labor Department data, with more than 900 companies investigated this fiscal year.

The investigation into Exclusive, Valtierra and Meza poultry facilities found that employers directed workers under the age of 18 to use sharp knives to debone and cut poultry. The company also directed minors to work longer and at times not permitted by law, as well as failing to pay overtime wages, according to the release.

“These employers endangered children, stole their wages and threatened them with retaliation if they spoke to investigators about their illegal activity,” Wage and Hour Division Regional Administrator Ruben Rosalez said in a statement.

The agency issued citations related to wage payments, child labor, recordkeeping, retaliation against employees and obstruction of a federal investigation. The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California approved an amended injunction last week after discovering the processors had plans to reopen their facilities Oct. 28.

District Judge Mark Scarsi ordered the defendants to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act and compensate their workers accordingly.

Agriculture is among the leading industries susceptible to child labor. Following a New York Times Magazine feature that documented a 14-year-old migrant boy who was maimed by deboning equipment, the Justice Department opened an investigation into Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms last month.

In April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a letter to 18 of the largest meat and poultry processors urging them to take more precautionary steps to curb child labor from happening in their facilities or throughout their supply chains.