Congress is putting a toe in the nation’s child labor scandal but its action looks to be more about re-visiting old ground than opening new investigations. A so-called “oversight effort” led by Democrat Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker is underway to extract information from the companies that used Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI) for contract cleaning services.

PSSI was found violating child labor laws at 13 meat processing plants in eight states, having used children in some instances to perform food safety jobs such as cleaning dangerous equipment. The Senate panel is demanding information from the businesses that run those 13 plants, but apparently not Blackstone, which owns PSSI and is the world’s largest alternative asset manager.

Nor is there any indication that Homeland Security is being called to report on its investigation into human trafficking that was also reported by network news services earlier this year. USDA also has not made any public account of food safety violations that may have stemmed from putting so much plant sanitation in the hands of children.

Nevertheless, the Senate oversight group made up entirely of Democrats claims that their inquiries to “host companies” for details about their contract monitoring with PSSi will ensure the use of child labor “never happens again.” The panel’s deadline is July 1.

The letter to the “host” companies says:

“We write in response to recent reports that your company employed a contractor, Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI), that violated the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) prohibition on the use of child labor in hazardous environments and exploited migrant children,” wrote the senators to the nine companies. “We are concerned that your company potentially turned a blind eye to glaring child labor issues in your facilities, and are deeply troubled by the response to previous Congressional inquiries that seek to shift accountability away from host companies to third-party contractors. While we recognize that you may have severed ties with PSSI, we are seeking information on your company’s process for monitoring contractor compliance with labor laws as well as information on the changes you will be implementing to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.”

Since 2018, the Department of Labor has seen a 69 percent increase in companies illegally employing children. In fiscal year 2023, the department found 835 companies it investigated had employed more than 3,800 children in violation of labor laws. In this particular case, the department’s Wage and Hour Division began investigating PSSI in August 2022 and found PSSI liable for employing more than 100 children, aged thirteen to seventeen at 13 meat-processing facilities in eight states. As the Department of Labor noted when unveiling an interagency child labor task force in February, companies who contract for services are often not vigilant about who is working in their facilities, creating child labor violations up and down the supply chain, and host companies often falsely claim that they are unaware or unable to control child labor issues happening at their worksites.

“We are concerned that [your company] did not conduct sufficiently rigorous monitoring and oversight of third-party contractors like PSSI. This lack of vigilance . . . allows for egregious violations and raises broader concerns of compliance and accountability,” added the senators. “Further, we are concerned that, despite the investigation and settlement by the DOL, Congressional inquiries, and outreach from the United States Department of Agriculture, several host companies have failed to terminate contracts with PSSI, have failed to address the deficiencies in their existing compliance and auditing practices, and/or have failed to institute company-wide oversight practices to address the current crisis.

“Without concerted efforts by all relevant parties to root out all instances of child labor across the industry, children will continue to be illegally employed and exploited in dangerous working conditions in our country. As such, we write to ask your company a number of questions to ensure that you properly monitor your contractors for potential FLSA and Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) violations, including child labor, and get to the bottom of past monitoring failures,” concluded the senators.

The senators sent letters to nine companies that contracted with PSSI, including Tyson Foods, George’s Inc. (part of Rosen’s Diversified Inc.), JBS Foods, Maple Leaf Farms Inc., Cargill Inc., Turkey Valley Farms, Buckhead Meat of Minnesota (part of Sysco Corporation), Gibbon Packing Co., and Greater Omaha Packing Co. Inc.

Joining Sens. Menendez and Booker in this oversight effort are Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV.), Tammy Baldwin (D-WS.), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT.), Dick Durbin (D-IL.), Peter Welch (D-VT.), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA.), Jeff Merkley (D-OR.), John Fetterman (D-PA.), and Ron Wyden (D-OR.).

The following 13 meat plants were locations contracting with Packers Sanitation Services and these relationships resulted in the provision of child labor for critical food safety jobs:  PSSI paid fines totaling $1.5 million.

Name of processorCityStateAffected minorsPenalties Assessed
George’s Inc.BatesvilleAR4$60,552
Tyson Food Inc.Green ForestAR6$90,828
JBS FoodsGreeleyCO4$60,552
Maple Leaf Farms Inc.MilfordIN2$30,276
Cargill Inc.Dodge CityKS26$393,588
Turkey Valley FarmsMarshallMN2$30,276
Buckhead Meat of MinnesotaSt. CloudMN1$15,138
JBS FoodsWorthingtonMN22$333,036
Gibbon Packing Co.GibbonNE1$15,138
JBS FoodsGrand IslandNE27$408,726
Greater Omaha Packing Co. IncOmahaNE5$75,690
Tyson Food Inc.GoodlettsvilleTN1$15,138
Cargill Inc.FionaTX1$15,138
Total penalties paid by PSSI$1,544,076

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