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Labor Department investigating Alabama poultry plant for employing minors

By Ehren Wynder

May 18 (UPI) -- Federal authorities are investigating the use of underage workers at an Alabama poultry plant owned by the same firm found responsible for the death of a 16-year-old worker in Mississippi.

Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Labor on May 7 filed a lawsuit against Mar Jac Poultry to halt production of goods allegedly tainted with child labor through Mary 31.

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The department said it found several minors as young as 16 unlawfully employed at the company's Jasper, Ala., facility.

The factory employs 1,000 people and is the largest employer in Walker County.

According to court documents, the Labor Department's investigation into Mar Jac's Jasper facility began with a complaint in March. Investigators earlier this month said they found at least four minors working the plant in "oppressive" conditions.

The minors reportedly were cutting and deboning poultry carcasses and had been working in the facility for months.

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Some of them were Guatamalan and attended a local high school. They started their shifts at 11 p.m. and worked from Sunday through Thursday, according to investigators.

Mar Jac's attorneys denied the company knowingly hired underage workers and said the minors acquired employment through forged documents that lied about their age.

The company argued some of the workers were not performing jobs prohibited by federal regulations and that it fired employees when it learned they were underage.

This is not Mar Jac's first dealing with child labor violations. The Labor Department, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in January found the company liable for the death of a 16-year-old at one of its Mississippi plants.

The family of 16-year-old Duvan Perez previously filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company after Perez was killed by a machine he was cleaning.

Mar Jac had contested OSHA's conclusions in the case and argued there were no "errors committed by its safety or human resources employees."

The company claimed Perez had stolen the identity of a 32-year-old man to gain employment at the Mississippi plant and that it relied on a staffing firm to fill positions at the factory.

Mar Jac said it was applying additional scrutiny to IDs in the hiring process in response to the Mississippi incident.

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Federal law does not explicitly prohibit minors from working in slaughterhouses. Minors working with or near dangerous machinery, however, is prohibited, Labor Department regulations state.

Alabama's labor law allows for 14- and 15-year-olds to work after they've received an eligibility form from their school.

State Rep. Susan Dubose, R-Hoover, has proposed removing the eligibility requirement, but the measure did not pass before the most recent legislative session ended.

The National Chicken Council, a trade group to which Mar Jac belongs, said it has "zero tolerance" for hiring underage workers.

"Our members have recently come together to form a Task Force to Prevent Child Labor, to treat this issue as non-competitive and to foster collaboration through the sharing of best practices that aid in the prevention of minors from gaining employment," NCC spokesperson Tom Super said in a statement.

Super, however, acknowledged that even when all required government screenings are implemented, some minors can slip through the cracks, and these issues are not unique the the poultry industry.

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