— OPINION —
Everybody should be familiar with the story so far.
U.S. Department of Labor investigators in late 2022 and in early 2023, found more than 100 minor children doing mostly overnight work in slaughterhouses for some of the best-known meat and poultry brands. But in every case, the youths were contract workers employed by Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI) with no direct employment by any of the meat plants.
In other words, PSSI has contracts to provide sanitation services and provides its employees who clean meat and poultry facilities. Because contract employees were involved, it was PSSI that ended up paying the $1.544 million in fines for these 13 locations, which were contracting with Packers Sanitation Services for work that resulted in the provision of child labor for critical food safety jobs:
|Name of processor
|Tyson Food Inc.
|Maple Leaf Farms Inc.
|Turkey Valley Farms
|Buckhead Meat of Minnesota
|Gibbon Packing Co.
|Greater Omaha Packing Co. Inc
|Tyson Food Inc.
|Total penalties paid by PSSI
It is not a good time to have your name associated with child labor. And the list of 13 includes some of the biggest names in the meat and poultry industry. For one thing, child labor is not far these days from human trafficking, which comes with much more severe penalties.
And then there is the simple fact that if you are OK with using children to do some of your company’s most critical food safety jobs, you might not be as serious about the task as you always make out.
So it came as no surprise to me that A-listers like Cargill, Tyson Foods, and JBS USA would terminate their contracts with PSSI. Or is it a surprise that they might begin with plants on that list of 13,
And reports of the contract cancellations came as PSSI President and CEO Dan Taft decided to retire. The shot caller for PSSI of course is The Blackstone Group, the largest private equity fund.
Some Food Safety News readers with a deeper knowledge of slaughterhouse cleaning than I seriously doubt there are as many cancellations as have been reported. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service should collect and report contracts to serve regulated establishments.
What does seem real is the announcement that JBS USA and United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) are going to be partners in JBS Sanitation, a full-service food safety and food plant sanitation company that will provide in-house sanitation services for JBS USA and Pilgrim’s facilities.
UFCW is the union that represents most meat and poultry employees in the United States.
JBS has begun the transition of 10 facilities to JBS Sanitation and plans to move additional facilities to the new company whenever third-party service providers are unable to meet JBS USA’s audit and compliance standards. JBS claims it terminated contracts with third-party sanitation provider PSSI at numerous facilities, including the locations cited in the Department of Labor’s complaint. Those locations include Grand Island, NE; Worthington, MN; and Greeley, CO..
“In light of the troubling allegations that have occurred in the food sanitation sector, JBS USA has made the decision to create a company that can provide the highest levels of food safety and quality assurance, while also adopting the same high standards for compliance and employment verification that we adhere to in the hiring of our own JBS USA workforce,” said Wesley Batista Filho, chief executive at JBS.
“The revelations about child labor among subcontractors in meatpacking plants are simply unacceptable, and it has been heartening to see JBS USA’s willingness to proactively move to address this egregious situation,” said Marc Perrone, UFCW International president. “We firmly believe that a strong union contract is the solution to the exploitation of any workers in the industry and are pleased to be partnering with JBS USA on in-house sanitation at a number of facilities across the country, which means sanitation workers will now receive the strong wages, benefits, and protections as other union members in those facilities. We look forward to continuing our work with JBS USA to ensure a safe food supply and safe working environment for our members.”
The new JBS-UFCW venture plans to be different with an internal whistleblower hotline, where employees can confidentially report any suspicious activity regarding the presence of underaged workers. The company has also provided local school districts with access to the JBS Ethics Line for confidential reporting regarding suspected child labor incidents.
Also, technical services at the new JBS Sanitation will be led by Alfred “Al” Almanza, Head of Food Safety and Quality Assurance for JBS Global,
Prior to joining JBS in 2017, Almanza spent nearly 40 years with USDA, including a decade as Administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), and as Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety during the Obama Administration.
“Sanitation is a key component to producing safe, affordable, healthy food,” said Almanza. “It requires specific expertise and extensive training to be done safely. Our focus at JBS Sanitation will be the safety of the food we provide, the safety of the men and women who provide sanitation services, and creating opportunities for our team members.”
Sanitation contracts at slaughterhouses are a topic that has gone unnoticed for too long. When the nation’s largest private equity fund smells lots of money in something, you probably should pay attention. When dangerous night jobs are legally available only to those over the age of 18 and are being routinely filled by minor children, we need immediate remedial action.
And when this evolving situation brings about a marriage between a major multinational company and its union, something is happening for sure.
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