Child labor violations are on the rise. The Department of Labor is responding. 


May 16, 2024

As incidents of child exploitation in the workforce skyrocket, the U.S. Department of Labor this month announced yet another large fine – this time, against a cleaning company that illegally supplied at least two dozen children to work overnight in slaughterhouses and meatpacking facilities in Iowa and Virginia. 

Fayette Janitorial Service LLC has agreed to pay $649,000 after DOL investigators found it sent workers as young as 13 into plants to scrub razor-edged machinery with high-powered hoses, scalding water, and dangerous chemicals.  

Under a consent decree accepted by a federal judge, in addition to the hefty fine, Fayette Janitorial will be required to take a number of preventive measures, including immediately hiring a third-party consultant or compliance specialist; maintaining accurate records for all employees, including date of birth and tasks assigned; impose disciplinary sanctions, including termination and/or suspension for management personnel responsible for child labor violations; and establishing a toll-free hotline so that suspected violations can be reported. 

The Fair Labor Standards Act ever since the 1930s has banned children under 18 from being employed in hazardous occupations common in meat and poultry slaughtering, processing, rendering, and packing operations. 

In this case, the two plants involved were a Seaboard Triumph Foods facility in Iowa and a Perdue Farms plant in Virginia, according to a DOL release and the Washington Post. 

Investigators spent weeks surveilling the two facilities and interviewing workers, dozens of whom appeared to be underage. 

“The children’s youthful features made them easy to spot – as did one worker’s shirt that said, ‘Class of 2025 South Sioux City High School,’” the Post wrote. “Though some of the workers claimed to be adults, investigators were able to match their photos with school records.” 

At the Iowa facility, investigators spoke with a 16-year-old worker who said he had been employed for two years and worked as many as 54 hours each week cleaning a machine “that cuts the hogs’ ears.” He said his shifts began late at night and stretched into the early morning, even when school was in session. 

At the Virginia plant, which processes about 1.5 million chickens each week, investigators said at least 15 children were hired by Fayette Janitorial to sanitize dangerous machinery, according to the DOL. DOL investigators found that a 13-year-old suffered serious injury when his arm was mangled while he cleaned debris from a conveyor belt used to pack chicken drumsticks. The child was hospitalized for 12 days and missed months of school. 

“As we’ve unfortunately seen in this case, employers’ violations of federal child labor laws have real consequences on children’s lives,” Jessica Looman, administrator of DOL’s Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, said in a February news release announcing the DOL investigation. “Our actions to stop these violations will help ensure that more children are not hurt in the future.” 

Nationwide, violations of child labor laws are sharply on the rise. In 2023, the Department of Labor found 955 violations of child labor laws involving almost 5,800 children. That same year, a report by the Economic Policy Institute found that the number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws increased 37 percent over the previous year and at least 10 states introduced or passed laws rolling back child labor protections during the previous two years. 

“Children in hazardous occupations drove the Fair Labor Standards Act’s passage in 1938,” Christine Heri, an attorney with the Labor Department, said in the DOL news release announcing this month’s sanctions against Fayette Janitorial. “Yet in 2024, we still find U.S. companies employing children in risky jobs, jeopardizing their safety for profit.” 

“The Department is committed to combating all forms of illegal child labor because we cannot build our economy on the backs of children,” said Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su. 

The Child Labor Coalition, representing 37 groups engaged in the fight against domestic and global child labor, has praised the Biden Administration for taking new steps to enforce the nation’s child labor laws. 

This year, the Department of Labor is seeking an additional $7.5 million to hire 50 additional enforcement staff in the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) to combat exploitative child labor, $3.8 million for the Office of the Solicitor Labor (SOL) to ensure that WHD has enforcement capacity, and $10.7 million for SOL to offset over a decade of near-flat funding. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and others are spotlighting these programs as Congress moves forward with the appropriations process, and CHN will continue to work with partners to make the case for needed investments.   

Child labor violations
Department of Labor