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‘Secret, not a secret’: Southwestern Minnesota meatpacking towns react to child labor allegations

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The JBS pork processing facility in Worthington, Minnesota, the nation's third-largest and shown here in a file photo.
The JBS pork processing facility in Worthington, Minnesota, the nation's third-largest and shown here in a file photo. (Glen Stubbe/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS) Photo Gallery

WORTHINGTON, Minnesota — In a basement office, across the street from the Casey’s convenience store and just a block from the high school football field, a sign on the window for PSSI, a meatpacking janitorial service, announces nearly $20 an hour pay.

Inside, three women sit around a laptop and desk. One woman — who did not identify herself — stood and handed over a card with a Wisconsin area code.

“They’ll answer any question you have,” she told reporters. “We are not spokespeople.”

Two weeks ago, Labor Department attorneys in court filings alleged PSSI had illegally hired at least six minors to help clean two southwestern Minnesota meatpacking facilities, JBS Pork in Worthington and Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall.

America’s labor laws lead many to assume child labor only exists in far-away, often developing, countries. But a records request from the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry reveals at least 44 cases of child labor violations within the state in the last five years alone.

The massive JBS Pork plant welcomes interstate travelers to Worthington. Dozens of languages are spoken at the facility, which employs over 2,000 people. Downtown is bustling — boosted by immigration.

A VFW is adjacent to an Asian grocer. A buffalo leather billfold shop sits near a Mexican clothing store. Inside a corner storefront behind green curtains, Alicia Cante, a Mexican immigrant, sells her Herbalife protein shakes to two men, both who’ve worked for JBS.

When talk turns to the children employed, Ricardo Luna, a 16-year-veteran of JBS, shakes his head. “When I’m leaving, they are coming in … around 11 p.m. They leave bathed in water.”

Some in Worthington and Marshall said the shorter stature of Central American migrants — sometimes well below 6 feet tall — allows children to go unnoticed for being too young for the job.

“It doesn’t matter,” Luna said. “The kids are not to blame.”

Veterans of the packing industry say the most dangerous jobs are pressure-washing the cutlery used to dismember animal carcasses. The news of children working this demanding shift — the “third shift,” according to locals — is the latest chapter in a tumultuous period for the meat industry and its workforce.

Local law enforcement in both communities say they weren’t contacted by the federal Labor Department. Church officials, immigration attorneys — many vocal about worker safety during the pandemic — declined to comment on these new revelations brought to light that they acknowledge are stomach-churning.

“I heard about it on the radio,” said a man who lives across the street from the Turkey Valley plant in downtown Marshall. “That’s about all I know.”

A civil lawsuit filed by the Labor Department in Nebraska against PSSI described employees lifting hoses through standing water in a “mixture of floating meat parts and soap.” During a midnight search of the plants, federal investigators spoke with children — one hired as young as 13 — who worked the midnight shift to clean the cutting equipment, often in sluice tainted with animal byproduct.

At least two middle-school-aged children in Nebraska had chemical burns.

In a statement, PSSI said the violations could possibly be blamed on rogue individuals. In an email, company vice president Gina Swenson said a Worthington plant manager had been suspended, pending a review, for facilitating fraudulent identification papers for job applicants.

Explaining away child labor through the illicit actions of a single employee doesn’t pass muster in these southwestern Minnesota farm and packing towns.

“There’s such a labor shortage,” said Craig Schafer, city councilman in Marshall who has lived three blocks from Turkey Valley for the last 30-plus years. “But this feels like modern-day indentured [labor].”

A federal investigator testified in an affidavit that the plant manager’s workplace cellphone — which was unlocked — contained text messages between him and persons looking for fabricated papers to land jobs in plants.

“[T]he ID will need to have your face and that’ll work,” he texted an applicant, according to Labor Department attorneys.

The Fair Labor Standards Act allows for teenagers to work some industrial jobs during the school year with limited hours, but they’re not allowed to clean slaughterhouses.

In Worthington, community organizers said there’s long been a tacit practice of hiring minors and those without proper documentation.

ELIZABETH FLORES, STAR TRIBUNE

The PSSI hiring business is located on the lower level of a building just steps for the Worthington High School football field.

“The majority of people who do work at JBS are legally able to work,” said Leticia Rodriguez, a SNAP-Ed educator for Nobles County with University of Minnesota Extension. “It’s always been that the people who can’t work legally work the third shift.”

“It’s a secret,” Rodriguez said, “but not really a secret.”

Just hours before a midday shift change at Turkey Valley in Marshall on Thursday, Nov. 17, Joe Como talked on the phone behind the counter of Central American Store. Colorful pan dulce trucked from Sioux City sat in a case. He expected workers to soon come in to buy money orders to transmit some wages back home.

Como used to be in management at Turkey Valley. Now he runs the store with his wife, who is from Honduras.

“If family says they have work in Marshall, then soon you have 30 to 35 more people,” said Como, explaining the waves of migration to the town over the decades to work at one of the plants. “They follow family.”

At the plant, semi-trailer trucks carrying turkeys to the slaughterhouse roll into the lot. A poster hangs on the plant wall announcing a $15 an hour starting wage and $2,000 signing bonus.

Historically, Worthington and Marshall have seen an influx of immigrants to their communities to work in food and agricultural plants. As of last month, Nobles County has received 150 unaccompanied minors to live with sponsors. Federal law requires that these children attend school.

Authorities have not shared any details on whether the children were migrants, only to say the interviews were largely conducted in Spanish.

On the evening of Nov. 17, as the sun set and winds picked up, families hustled into St. Mary’s Church in Worthington ahead of a Spanish-language service. An hour beforehand, families knelt, praying. Brothers in dress boots walked up to the choir loft. Church officials say memories of past raids — such as in 2006, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement apprehended 1,300 people — still linger.

Outside the wind rattled the windows, as a community breathed in and out.

©2022 StarTribune. Visit at startribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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