Duvan Pérez

Duvan Pérez, a 16-year-old boy from Guatemala, died on July 14 at the Mar-Jac Poultry plant in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

(Photo: Facebook)

GOP Assault on Child Labor Laws Under Fresh Scrutiny After 16-Year-Old Dies at Poultry Plant

"How many more children must die?" asked the leader of the AFL-CIO. "Any lawmaker who wants to undermine child labor laws, in 2023, is a disgrace."

The recent death of a minor from injuries sustained while working at a poultry plant in Mississippi has elicited fresh outrage about the dangerous implications of the current assault on child labor protections across the United States.

Authorities confirmed Tuesday that Duvan Pérez, a 16-year-old boy from Guatemala, died last Friday at the Mar-Jac Poultry plant in Hattiesburg.

Pushing back against the framing of Pérez's death as an unexpected mishap, Terri Gerstein, director of the Project on State and Local Enforcement at the Harvard Law School Center for Labor and a Just Economy, stressed that it was predictable and a crime.

"It's not an unforeseeable accident," Gerstein wrote on social media. "Employers aren't allowed to hire kids in terribly dangerous workplaces for a reason."

Pérez, a middle school student, appears to have been unlawfully employed as a sanitation worker at Mar-Jac Poultry.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act, approved in 1938, prohibits employers from hiring anyone under the age of 18 to work in meat slaughtering, processing, and packing facilities—with limited exemptions for apprentices and student-learners who are at least 16 years old and enrolled in approved programs—due to the inherently hazardous nature of such jobs. All workers under 18 are barred from operating and cleaning power-driven meat processing machines.

CBS News reported Wednesday that Pérez died from injuries sustained while cleaning equipment.

A worker on duty at the time told NBC News that by the time they heard the boy screaming for help, it was already too late.

"Two times he began to scream, 'Help! Help!'" the worker said. "I knew he had died."

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Department of Labor's (DOL) Wage and Hour Division have opened investigations into the fatal incident at the Mar-Jac Poultry plant—the facility's second in two years.

Pérez's death came less than two weeks after a 16-year-old boy died while working at a sawmill in northern Wisconsin in violation of state and national child labor regulations.

"How many more children must die?" AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler asked Wednesday. "Any lawmaker who wants to undermine child labor laws, in 2023, is a disgrace."

Since 2021, lawmakers in 14 states have introduced bills to weaken rules governing what kinds of workplace tasks minors are allowed to perform and for what wages. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has argued that this deregulatory attack is driven by corporations' desire to ramp up exploitation.

"The trend reflects a coordinated multi-industry push to expand employer access to low-wage labor and weaken state child labor laws in ways that contradict federal protections," EPI researchers Jennifer Sherer and Nina Mast wrote earlier this year. "And the recent uptick in state legislative activity is linked to longer-term industry-backed goals to rewrite federal child labor laws and other worker protections for the whole country."

As of June, legislators have proposed at least 19 child labor rollbacks over the past two years. Of those, seven have been signed into law in five states (Arkansas, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, and New Jersey). Most of the legislation has been authored and advanced by Republican lawmakers. However, Democrats in New Jersey played an integral role in passing a 2022 law that increases the number of hours children can work, and Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declined to veto a pair of laws enacted in 2022—one to lower the minimum age for working at a liquor store and another the age to serve alcohol.

According to EPI, a GOP-approved Iowa law that took effect on July 1:

  • Allows employers to hire teens as young as 14 for previously prohibited hazardous jobs in industrial laundries or as young as 15 in light assembly work;
  • Allows state agencies to waive restrictions on hazardous work for 16-17-year-olds in a long list of dangerous occupations, including demolition, roofing, excavation, and power-driven machine operation;
  • Extends hours to allow teens as young as 14 to work six-hour nightly shifts during the school year;
  • Allows restaurants to have teens as young as 16 serve alcohol; and
  • Limits state agencies' ability to impose penalties for future employer violations.

"Multiple provisions in the new state law conflict with federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibitions on "oppressive child labor" involving hazardous conditions or excessive hours that interfere with teens' schooling or health and well-being," EPI pointed out.

State officials are moving to dilute child labor laws even as this month's preventable tragedies at the Wisconsin sawmill and the Mississippi poultry plant serve as heartbreaking reminders that existing state and federal protections are already inadequate and not being enforced consistently—with lethal consequences.

According to DOL data, the number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws increased by 283% from fiscal year 2015 to fiscal year 2022. Over that same time period, the number of minors employed in violation of hazardous occupation orders rose 94%.

While the agency is investigating hundreds of child labor cases, they constitute "just a tiny fraction of violations, most of which go unreported and uninvestigated," EPI lamented.

Earlier this month, Gerstein toldThe Guardian that "to stop violations of child labor laws, we need more funding for enforcement, higher penalties, and clear, attainable ways to hold lead corporations accountable for violations in their supply chains."

On April 12, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack sent a letter imploring the nation's 18 largest meat processors to "take important precautionary steps" to help eliminate "illegal child labor in your supply chains."

"The use of illegal child labor—particularly requiring that children undertake dangerous tasks—is inexcusable, and companies must consider both their legal and moral responsibilities to ensure they and their suppliers, subcontractors, and vendors fully comply with child labor laws," the letter states. "Companies in food manufacturing—particularly those with significant market power—need to be vigilant about the standards of their suppliers to help reduce systemic violations and abuses."

NBC Newsreported last month that a federal probe into Guatemalan children working in the U.S. in violation of child labor laws "has expanded to include meatpacking and produce firms that have allegedly hired underage migrants in at least 11 states."

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