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Southwestern Minnesota meatpacking towns react to child labor allegations

WORTHINGTON, MINN. –In a basement office across from Casey’s convenience store and a block from the high school football field, a sign in the window for PSSI, a meatpacking janitorial service, advertises a salary of nearly $20 per hour.

Inside, three women sit around a laptop and a desk. A woman – who did not identify herself – stood up and handed a card with a Wisconsin area code.

“They will answer all your questions,” she told reporters. “We are not spokespersons.

Two weeks ago, attorneys for the US Department of Labor in court filings alleged that PSSI illegally hired at least six minors to help clean up two southwestern Minnesota meatpacking plants, JBS Pork in Worthington and Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall.

US labor laws lead many to assume that child labor exists only in distant, often developing countries. But a request for records from the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry reveals at least 44 cases of child labor violations in the state in the past five years alone.

The massive JBS Pork Factory welcomes interstate travelers to Worthington. Dozens of languages ​​are spoken at the facility, which employs more than 2,000 people. The city center is lively, stimulated by immigration.

A VFW is adjacent to an Asian grocer. A shop selling buffalo leather billfolds stands next to a Mexican clothing store. Inside a corner storefront behind green curtains, Alicia Cante, a Mexican immigrant, sells its Herbalife protein shakes to two men, who both worked for JBS.

When the conversation turns to child employees, Ricardo Luna, a 16-year veteran of JBS, shakes his head. “When I leave, they come back… around 11 p.m. They leave bathed in water.”

Some in Worthington and Marshall said the shorter stature of Central American migrants – sometimes well under 6 feet tall – allows children to go unnoticed because they are too young for work.

“It doesn’t matter,” Luna said. “The children are not to blame.”

Packing industry veterans say the most dangerous jobs are pressure washing cutlery used to dismember animal carcasses. The news of children working the demanding shift – the “third shift”, according to locals – is the latest chapter in a tumultuous time for the meat industry and its workforce.

Local law enforcement in both communities say they were not contacted by the Federal Department of Labor. Church officials, immigration lawyers — many of whom speak out on worker safety during the pandemic — declined to comment on these new revelations that they concede are distressing.

“I heard about it on the radio,” said a man who lives across from the Turkey Valley plant in downtown Marshall. “That’s about all I know.”

A civil lawsuit filed by the Nebraska Department of Labor against PSSI described employees lifting pipes through standing water in a “mixture of floating pieces of meat and soap.” During a nighttime search of the factories, federal investigators spoke with children – including one hired as young as 13 – who worked the night shift cleaning cutting equipment, often in locks contaminated with animal by-products.

At least two school-age children in Nebraska have suffered chemical burns.

In a statement, PSSI said the violations could potentially be blamed on rogue individuals. In an email, company vice president Gina Swenson said a plant manager in Worthington had been suspended, pending review, to facilitate fraudulent identity papers for job seekers.

Explaining child labor to the wrongful actions of a single employee does not pass the mark in these farming and packing towns of southwestern Minnesota.

“There’s such a shortage of labor,” said Marshall Councilman Craig Schafer, who has lived three blocks from Turkey Valley for more than 30 years. “But it looks like a contract today [labor].”

A federal investigator testified in an affidavit that the plant manager’s cell phone — which was unlocked — contained text messages between him and people looking for fabricated papers to land factory jobs.

“[T]The ID will have to have your face on it and it will work,” he texted a candidate, according to Labor Department attorneys.

The Fair Labor Standards Act allows teenagers to work in certain industrial jobs during the school year with limited hours, but they are not allowed to clean slaughterhouses.

In Worthington, community organizers said there has long been an unspoken practice of hiring minors and people without proper documentation.

“The majority of people who work at JBS are legally able to work,” said Leticia Rodriguez, SNAP-Ed educator for Nobles County with the University of Minnesota Extension. “It’s always been that people who can’t work legally work the third shift.”

“It’s a secret,” Rodriguez said, “but not really a secret.”

Hours before a noon shift change at Turkey Valley in Marshall on Thursday, November 17, Joe Como talked on the phone behind the counter of the Central American Store. A colorful pan dulce trucked in from Sioux City sat in a crate. He expected workers to come soon to buy money orders to send some wages home.

Como was in the direction of Turkey Valley. Now he runs the store with his wife, who is originally from Honduras.

“If the family says they have work in Marshall, then soon you will have 30 to 35 more people,” Como said, explaining the waves of migration to the city over the decades to work in one of the factories. “They follow the family.”

At the factory, semi-trailer trucks transporting the turkeys to the slaughterhouse drive through the yard. A poster hangs on the factory wall advertising a starting wage of $15 an hour and a signing bonus of $2,000.

Historically, Worthington and Marshall have seen an influx of immigrants into their communities to work in food and agricultural factories. Since last month, Nobles County has received 150 unaccompanied minors to live with sponsors. Federal law requires these children to attend school.

Authorities did not share any details about whether the children were migrants, only to say that interviews were largely conducted in Spanish.

On the evening of Nov. 17, as the sun was setting and the winds were picking up, families rushed into St. Mary’s Church in Worthington ahead of a Spanish-language service. An hour before, the families knelt in prayer. Brothers in dress boots went up to the attic of the choir. Church officials say memories of past raids – such as in 2006, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement apprehended 1,300 people – still linger.

Outside, the wind rattled the windows, as a community inhaled and exhaled.

startribune Gt Itly

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