Workers as young as 15 were among those who federal authorities detained in a massive raid at a poultry plant Tuesday.
Their employment at the House of Raeford Farms plant appears to violate S.C. labor law, which prohibits people younger than 18 from working in hazardous jobs such as poultry processing.
Five of the detained juveniles were 16, and one was 15, according to a spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Maria Domingo, 21, a plant worker who was among those arrested, said she knew of at least two workers on the plant processing lines who were under 18. Authorities detained them along with more than 300 other workers suspected to be in the country illegally, she said.
“They cut wings. They cut muscles,” she said. “The young people worked with knives just like everyone else.”
Mark Dorman, who heads the enforcement office of the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, said state law does not allow youths under 18 to work on the processing floor of a poultry plant.
Employers who violate child labor laws are subject to penalties up to $1,000 per person under S.C. law and up to $11,000 per person under federal law.
“Some of the kids at that age don't understand the danger of the jobs,” Dorman said. “As a result, they can cut a hand off.”
An Observer investigation published this year found that poultry plants are filled with hazards. Workers are surrounded by dangerous chemicals and machines. They stand shoulder to shoulder wielding sharp knives. They routinely make more than 20,000 cutting motions a shift, which can leave them with nerve and muscle damage. And they sometimes lose fingers.
Domingo said she first worked at the Greenville plant at age 16, cutting wings on a plant processing line.
She was released by authorities Tuesday so she can care for her child, but she's been ordered to meet with a judge who may deport her to her native Guatemala.
Authorities are investigating how the juveniles got their jobs at the plant, and it's not yet clear whether company officials will be charged with violating child labor law.
House of Raeford, in a statement Wednesday, said “the Company does not and will not knowingly employ anyone who is not eligible to work legally, including anyone who is underage.”
The company said it's committed to following the law.
After halting work at the plant Tuesday, House of Raeford said it resumed “limited operations” Wednesday.
With eight processing plants in the Southeast and about 6,000 employees, the Raeford, N.C.-based company is one of the nation's top chicken and turkey producers.
Tuesday's immigration raid – the largest ever in the Carolinas – followed months of investigation by federal authorities. ICE officials say they'll continue their probe, with a focus on determining who allowed illegal immigrants to work at the plant.
Enrique Pagan, who worked as a supervisor at the Greenville plant until 2006, said he knew of underage workers whose fathers would buy them fake IDs and dress them in baggy jeans to make them look older.
“When I was there, there were boys too young to work,” said Pagan, who now lives in Puerto Rico. “You'd ask them and they'd tell you, ‘I'm 15.'”
Belem Villegas, who worked as an employment supervisor at the plant for five years before leaving in 2005, told the Observer last year the company has knowingly hired underage workers.
“There's minors galore,” Villegas said. “Everybody knew.”
Villegas said she would take injured workers to the doctor only to be told by health care providers that they were underage. She said she relayed that information to another supervisor at the plant, but was ignored.
House of Raeford said it fired Villegas because she was “accepting money to provide employment favors to potential employees.” Villegas denied the claim and said she believes she was fired, in part, because she started speaking up for workers.
Underage workers also found jobs at House of Raeford's plant in West Columbia, S.C., according to Eric Lawson, a former supervisor there.
Lawson, who supervised about 20 workers before leaving the company in April, said a manager told him most of the plant's workers were illegal or underage.
During his nine months on the job, Lawson said he learned of about six employees who were underage. Once, he said, he heard a co-worker telling his friends that he was about to become 15. The worker's job required him to cut thousands of legs off birds each day, Lawson said.
ICE said all six of the arrested juveniles were in the country illegally. The agency said it released two of the juveniles to an authorized caregiver and is working with authorities in Mexico and Guatemala to reunite the others with their respective families.
Authorities say it's not the first time meat processors have employed juvenile workers. Managers of an Iowa meatpacking plant could face jail time for violations of child labor laws. The state Attorney General's office alleged last month that underage workers at an Agriprocessors plant were exposed to dangerous chemicals and were employed to operate hazardous machinery, such as meat grinders and circular saws.
Agriprocessors officials have said that the youths lied about their age and that the company was not at fault.