Exclusive: Hyundai Subsidiary Employed Children at Alabama Factory
LUVERNE, Alabama, July 22 (Reuters) – A subsidiary of Hyundai Motor Co used child labor at a factory that supplies parts for the Korean automaker’s assembly line in nearby Montgomery, Alabama, police say from the region, the family of three miners, and eight former and current employees of the factory.
Underage workers, in some cases as young as 12, recently worked at a metal stamping plant operated by SMART Alabama LLC, these people said. SMART, listed by Hyundai in corporate filings as a majority-owned unit, supplies parts for some of the most popular cars and SUVs the automaker builds at Montgomery, its flagship US assembly plant.
Hyundai (005380.KS) did not respond to phone calls or emails from Reuters seeking comment.
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SMART, in a statement, said it abides by federal, state and local laws and “denies any allegations that it knowingly employed anyone ineligible for employment.” The company said it relies on temporary work agencies to fill jobs and expects “those agencies to follow the law in recruiting, hiring and placing workers on its premises. “.
SMART did not respond to specific questions about the workers cited in this story or the work scenes they and others familiar with the plant described.
Reuters learned of underage workers at the Hyundai-owned supplier after the brief disappearance in February of a Guatemalan migrant child from his family’s home in Alabama.
The girl, who will turn 14 this month, and her two brothers, aged 12 and 15, all worked at the factory earlier this year and did not go to school, according to people familiar with their jobs. Their father, Pedro Tzi, confirmed these people’s account in an interview with Reuters.
Police in the Tzi family’s adopted hometown of Enterprise also told Reuters the girl and her siblings had worked at SMART. Police, who helped locate the missing girl, identified her by name when looking for her in a public alert.
Reuters does not use her name in this article because she is underage.
Enterprise police, about 45 miles from the Luverne plant, have no jurisdiction to investigate possible labor law violations at the plant. Instead, the force notified the state attorney general’s office after the incident, James Sanders, a company police detective, told Reuters.
Mike Lewis, spokesman for the Alabama attorney general’s office, declined to comment. It’s unclear whether the bureau or other investigators have contacted SMART or Hyundai about possible violations.
Pedro Tzi’s children, who are now enrolled for the next school term, were part of a larger cohort of underage workers who found employment with the Hyundai-owned supplier in recent years, according to interviews with a dozen former and current factory employees and workforce. recruiters.
Several of those miners, they said, gave up school to work long hours at the factory, a sprawling facility with a documented history of health and safety violations, including amputation risks. .
Most current and former employees who spoke with Reuters did so on condition of anonymity. Reuters was unable to determine the specific number of children who may have worked at the SMART factory, the pay of the miners or other terms of their employment.
The revelation of child labor in Hyundai’s US supply chain could spark a backlash from consumers, regulators and the reputation of one of the world’s most powerful and profitable automakers. In a “human rights policy” posted online, Hyundai says it prohibits child labor in all of its workforce, including suppliers.
The company recently said it would expand into the United States, planning more than $5 billion in investments, including a new electric vehicle factory near Savannah, Georgia.
“Consumers should be outraged,” said David Michaels, the former US assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, with whom Reuters shared the findings of its report.
“They should know that these cars are built, at least in part, by workers who are children and need to be in school rather than risk their lives and physical integrity because their families desperately need the income,” he added.
At a time of labor shortages in the United States and supply chain disruptions, labor experts told Reuters there are heightened risks that children, especially undocumented migrants , find themselves in dangerous and illegal workplaces for minors.
In Enterprise, home to a thriving poultry industry, Reuters reported earlier this year how a Guatemalan miner, who emigrated to the United States on his own, found work at a local chicken processing plant.
“MUCH TOO YOUNG”
Alabama and federal laws prohibit minors under the age of 18 from working in metal stamping and pressing operations such as SMART, where proximity to hazardous machinery may endanger them. Alabama law also requires children 17 and under to be enrolled in school.
Michaels, who is now a professor at George Washington University, said the safety of American suppliers to Hyundai was a recurring concern at OSHA during his eight years at the helm of the agency until his departure in 2017. Michaels visited Korea in 2015 and said he warned Hyundai executives that its high demand for “just-in-time” parts was leading to safety lapses.
The SMART plant manufactures parts for the popular Elantra, Sonata and Santa Fe models, vehicles that until June accounted for nearly 37% of Hyundai’s sales in the United States, according to the automaker. The plant has received repeated sanctions from OSHA for health and safety violations, according to federal records.
A review of records by Reuters shows SMART has been fined at least $48,515 in OSHA penalties since 2013, and was last fined this year. OSHA inspections at SMART have documented plant violations including crush and amputation hazards.
The plant, whose website says it has the capacity to supply parts for up to 400,000 vehicles each year, has also struggled to retain labor to meet Hyundai’s demand.
In late 2020, SMART wrote a letter to U.S. consular officials in Mexico requesting a visa for a Mexican worker. The letter, written by SMART chief executive Gary Sport and reviewed by Reuters, said the plant was “severely understaffed” and that Hyundai “will not tolerate such shortcomings”.
SMART did not respond to questions from Reuters about the letter.
Earlier this year, attorneys filed a class action lawsuit against SMART and several staffing companies that help provide workers with US visas. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on behalf of a group of about 40 Mexican workers, alleges that some employees, hired as engineers, were sentenced to menial jobs instead.
SMART in court documents called the suit’s allegations “baseless” and “baseless.”
Many miners at the plant were hired through recruitment agencies, according to current and former SMART workers and local labor recruiters.
Although recruitment firms help fill industrial jobs nationwide, they have often been criticized by labor advocates for allowing large employers to outsource the responsibility of verifying employees’ eligibility to work. .
A former SMART worker, an adult migrant who left for another job in the auto industry last year, said there were around 50 underage workers between different shifts at the plant, adding that he knew some of them personally. Another former adult SMART worker, a US citizen who also left the plant last year, said she worked alongside about a dozen miners during her shift.
Another former employee, Tabatha Moultry, 39, worked on SMART’s assembly line for several years until 2019. Moultry said the plant had high turnover and increasingly relied on migrant workers to meet intense production demands. She said she remembered working with a migrant girl who “looked like she was 11 or 12”.
The daughter would come to work with her mother, Moultry said. When Moultry asked her real age, the girl replied that she was 13. “She was way too young to work in that factory, or any factory,” Moultry said. Moultry did not provide further details about the girl, and Reuters could not independently confirm his account.
Tzi, the father of the missing girl, contacted Enterprise police on February 3 after she failed to return home. Police have issued an orange alert, a public notice when law enforcement believe a child is in danger.
They also launched a manhunt for 21-year-old Alvaro Cucul, another Guatemalan migrant and SMART worker at the time who Tzi thought she might be with. Using geolocation data from cellphones, police located Cucul and the girl in a parking lot in Athens, Georgia.
The girl told officers that Cucul was a friend and that they had gone there to look for other work opportunities. Cucul was arrested and then deported, according to people familiar with his deportation. Cucul did not respond to a Facebook post from Reuters seeking comment.
After the disappearance generated local media coverage, SMART fired a number of underage workers, according to two former employees and other locals familiar with the plant. The sources said the police attention raised fears authorities could soon crack down on other underage workers.
Tzi, the father, also worked at SMART and now does odd jobs in construction and forestry. He told Reuters he regretted his children went to work. The family needed all the income they could get at the time, he added, but are now trying to move on.
“It’s all over now,” he said. “The children are not working and in the fall they will be in school.”
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Editing by Paulo Prada
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