A North Carolina poultry producer, one of the nations largest, has been caught again illegally putting minors to work in a hazardous job.
The U.S. Department of Labor reported Tuesday that it found two 17-year-old workers operating an electric knife on the chicken line at a House of Raeford plant north of Wilmington during an investigation by the departments Wage and Hour Division.
Regulators fined the Raeford-based poultry giant $12,400 for violating child labor rules at the Teachey plant. The fine, while small, is at the higher range of sanctions levied in such cases.
There is just no excuse for it, said Carol Runyan, professor at the Colorado School of Public Health.
While saying more progress needs to be made to protect underage workers, Runyan and other safety advocates said they were encouraged by Tuesdays action, noting the department has been thwarted by an underfunded enforcement system.
More than 80 percent of the nations poultry is processed in the South. North Carolina ranks among the nations leaders in poultry production, with plants processing more than 700 million chickens each year.
Its not the first time House of Raeford has been caught employing underage workers.
During a 2008 immigration raid of the companys Greenville, S.C., plant, federal officials found six juveniles, including a 15-year-old, working on the chicken line.
One of those underage workers, Lucero Gayton, said in 2008 that she started working the night shift four months after she turned 15.
While most of her former classmates were playing sports and attending dances, Lucero said she was working 10-hour shifts, wielding a sharp knife, cutting muscles from thousands of freshly killed chickens.
Poultry processing is considered one of the most dangerous jobs for teenagers, according to child safety advocates.
Workers are surrounded by dangerous machines and chemicals. Theyre often required to make thousands of cutting motions a day with sharp knives, conditions that can leave them vulnerable to cuts and debilitating nerve and muscle problems. Because of the hazards, federal and state labor laws prohibit anyone under 18 from working on a poultry processing line.
The federal agency did not release the names of the two underage workers discovered at the Teachey plant, but Richard Blaylock, director of the Raleigh District Office, said that its critical for employers to comply with all federal and state regulations intended to keep our youth safe on the job.
This situation is particularly disappointing because the company previously was cited for the same type of violation, he said.
House of Raeford officials acknowledged hiring two 17-year-old workers, but said it was due to an unfortunate administrative error in 2011. They said the company is committed to complying with state and federal laws. A corporate compliance officer will regularly review active employee lists to verify employment requirements, they said.
The company was very cooperative with the Department of Labor in this matter and has put new policies and procedures in place to avoid this oversight in the future, the company said in a statement.
In a 2008 series on working conditions in the poultry industry, The Charlotte Observer reported that House of Raeford had in recent years been cited for more workplace safety violations than any other U.S. poultry company.
More than 20 former and current workers at House of Raeford plants in Greenville, S.C.; West Columbia, S.C.; and Raeford told the Observer in 2008 that the poultry company frequently hired underage workers. Six supervisors said that top managers allowed the hiring to secure cheap, compliant labor.
Prompted by the Observer series, North Carolina lawmakers doubled state penalties for child-labor law violations. First-time violators would be fined $500 instead of $250, and subsequent violations would draw a $1,000 fine instead of $500. If an underage worker is injured at a business with serious workplace safety violations, state officials can fine the company $14,000, up from $7,000.
Underage reports rise in N.C.
In North Carolina, complaints alleging youth employment violations have risen in recent years, along with enforcement activity. The state labor department conducted nearly 390 youth employment investigations in fiscal 2012, an increase of about 15 percent over the previous year.
Nationally, the number of young workers who die on the job has declined in recent years. Still, advocates say, far too many youths get hurt or killed in dangerous jobs.
In 2009, 359 workers under age 24 died from work-related injuries, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twenty-seven of those workers were under 18.
Watchdog groups point to signs that federal enforcement of child-labor laws has declined.
Child labor violations in agriculture decreased from 36 cases in 2009 to 31 cases in 2010, while penalties for child labor violations dropped by almost half, according to Human Rights Watch.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Labor Department withdrew proposed rules aimed at protecting young workers from dangerous agricultural jobs. The withdrawal was supported by the agriculture industry, which contended that the rules would have hurt family farms.
Several years ago, advocates such as Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, asked federal officials to take a closer look at whether poultry plants were complying with child labor laws.
Im actually encouraged they found these young workers in the plant, said Maki, also a director with the National Consumers League. Because it indicates they are looking there.