A report published jointly by the International Labor Organization and Unicef, organizations that observed June 12 as World Day Against Child Labor, found agriculture is the largest employer of child labor.

According to the latest available data, more than 75 percent of all 5 to 14 year olds in child labor worldwide were employed in agriculture in 2020.

In recent months in the United States, the standout users of child labor have been the meat and poultry sectors, often through contracts for cleaning services. 

With frequent actions to enforce child labor laws citing the meat and poultry sectors, it was not long before the industry-leading Meat Institute, formerly the “North American Meat Institute,” decided to do something about it. The Washington, D.C.-based trade organization distributed specific instructions to keep its members out of trouble.

With hundreds of thousands of migrants entering the country illegally each month, including more unaccompanied minors than ever before, the Meat Institute says child labor is hired both knowingly and unknowingly in the United States, including by many meat and poultry businesses. Those often are food safety jobs cleaning dangerous equipment.

The Meat Institute’s “best practices” were developed to help prevent child labor, given the record influx of undocumented minors occurring in tandem with the increasing prevalence and sophistication of identity theft and fraud.

In each and every one of those meat and poultry facilities, USDA inspection personnel are employed by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Early suggestions that USDA people might add checking IDs to their inspection duties weren’t considered realistic by the department.

Instead, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack sent a letter in April to the meat and poultry industry claiming the Biden-Harris Administration is committed to “combatting illegal child labor.” He also said the federal government has an “interagency Taskforce to Combat Child Labor Exploitation.”

It was short on specifics, but Vilsack did say something about using USDA’s regulatory and procurement authorities. In the weeks since his letter, his vagueness has caused talk about putting more punitive actions for child labor violators into the 2024 Farm Bill. 

Since there will be no USDA employee checking IDs at the door, the Meat Institute’s campaign against child labor is a 7-page “best practices” document focused on “Workforce Age Verification.”

“Children have no place in meat or poultry packing or processing facilities,” says the document’s statement of principles. “The Meat Institute’s member companies categorically prohibit hiring anyone under 18 to work in their production facilities. The prohibition on hiring child labor extends to the use of subcontractors.”

According to the Meat Institute, a corporate commitment to prevent illegal child labor is a critical first step.  This should include a supplier code of conduct for those third-party contractors.

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