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Poultry worker advocates protest Tyson over child labor allegations

Protesters march to the Tyson Headquarters in Springdale.
Daniel Caruth
Protesters march to the Tyson Headquarters in Springdale.

From KUAF Fayetteville:

Earlier this month, a group of protesters, made up of a coalition of North American worker organizations, marched to the Tyson Headquarters in Springdale.

Child labor violations were one of the main concerns brought by workers during this protest.

In September, the U.S. Department of Labor opened an investigationinto Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms to determine if the poultry manufacturing companies used migrant children to clean slaughterhouses. And in February, a company contracted by Tyson to clean meatpacking plants paid almost $91,000 in penalties for unlawfully employing six minors at a Tyson Facility in Green Forest, Arkansas. The fine was part of a larger $1.5 million in civil penalties that Packer Sanitation Services Incorporated paid for employing kids as young as 13 to work in dangerous conditions.

Maria Ruvalcaba is one of the protesters. She worked at a Tyson factory processing chicken for 16 years. She said the company owes workers and consumers transparency and accountability about working conditions.

"They lie too much too," she said. "They say one thing and they do another thing."

Magaly Licolli is the founder of Venceremos, an advocacy organization for poultry workers in Arkansas, and the organizer of this protest. She said she often hears from workers about instances of kids working at plants and poultry farms.

Earlier this year, Licolli said she helped two migrant teenagers from Guatemala recover wages from a Tyson supplier.

"They didn't speak Spanish or English— They were forced to work 16 hours straight during that shift," she said. "When you talk to this population, the majority of them are undocumented. The kids are coming with an asylum status that don't really understand the laws in this country or the language itself."

Tyson's company code of conduct states that suppliers are expected to ensure they do not use child labor. Licolli said the company needs to do more to keep underage workers out of its supply chain.

"It's just not acceptable that a family-owned company says we are not taking responsibility because those are not the workers that we hire," she said. "No, but those workers are working so that you have a product to sell."

Arkansas law prohibits children under the age of 16 from working more than eight hours a day, more than six days a week and more than 48 hours per week. Minors are also not allowed to work after 7 p.m. on nights proceeding a school day and after 9 p.m. on weekends.

In February, just two weeks after the Department of Labor's investigation into Packer's Sanitation Services, Arkansas lawmakers approved the Youth Hiring Act, which removes the requirement for children under 16 to obtain a work permit from the state's Division of Labor before they can be hired.

Annie Smith is a professor with the University of Arkansas School of Law, focused on human trafficking and labor exploitation. She said dropping this requirement has made complying with the state's labor laws more difficult.

"And that form, which is no longer required was potentially helpful, particularly to good actor employers who wanted to do the right thing," Smith said. "So there was an opportunity there to educate employers who want to do the right thing that is now lost."

The state legislature also passed a bill that increased civil penalties for employers that illegally employ minors. Smith said that the law still is not enough, and the loosening of other requirements undermines this law.

"The lower-end amount is $100 per violation," she said. "That's not a big economic incentive to necessarily comply with the law, especially if the likelihood of getting caught is quite low."

Data shows that instances of child labor violations are on the rise across the U.S. The Department of Labor reported that minors employed in violation of federal labor laws were up 37% from 2015. Smith said to really address this, policymakers need to look at the underlying causes like market pressure and the rise of subcontracted workers.

"We could look at rates of childhood hunger in Arkansas and around the US," Smith said. "There's economic pressures that push children into workplaces."

Smith also pointed to stronger whistleblower protections as a remedy. Magaly Licolli said this is precisely what she wants out of this protest. In a letter addressed to Tyson CEO and President Donnie King, Venceremos and other members of the National Food Chain Workers Alliance pushed for a move to create a code of conduct that involves input from workers.

"What we are bringing in and what we want to fight for is for a worker driven social responsibility that is driven by workers and led by workers and created by workers," Licolli said.

She also wants Tyson to take responsibility for issues that arise within its supply chain.

" We often have seen Tyson respond like, 'we don't know,' like ignoring or denying the investigation, she said. "We want Tyson to at least acknowledge that there is a problem and that there needs to be solved to end child labor within their supply chain"

Tyson did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the investigation into Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms is still ongoing.

Daniel Caruth is KUAF's Morning Edition host and reporter for Ozarks at Large.