A majority-owned Hyundai subsidiary that produces metal stampings for one of the automaker's assembly facilities in Alabama used child labor, according to a report from Reuters published Friday.
The Reuters report describes disturbing and illegal labor practices at SMART Alabama. According to the report, children as young as 12-years old were working at the plant recently. The subsidiary produces stampings for Hyundai's Montgomery, Alabama plant.
In a statement, Hyundai said it "does not tolerate illegal employment practices at any Hyundai entity. We have policies and procedures in place that require compliance with all local, state and federal laws." SMART Alabama denies any known wrongdoing, and seems to shift blame on a temporary work agency. It said it expects "these agencies to follow the law in recruiting, hiring, and placing workers on its premises."
The plant's apparent use of child labor was discovered by Reuters, while reporting a story on a missing 14-year-old girl. The child's father, Pedro Tzi, a Guatemalan migrant living in Enterprise, Alabama, confirmed to Reuters that his daughter, and his two sons, aged 12 and 15, worked at the plant earlier this year. The children weren't enrolled in school, which is illegal for those under the age of 17 in the state of Alabama. The state also bars anyone under 18 from working at a stamping plant. Tzi's children are now enrolled in school for the fall. "All that is over now," he told Reuters. "The kids aren't working and in fall they will be in school."
Reuters said Tzi's children were among many child laborers, based on interviews with current and former plant employees and labor recruiters. One former worker believed there were around 50 children working at the plant.
SMART Alabama has been the subject of a number of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations over the past decade, with Reuters reporting the company racked up nearly $50,000 in fines since 2013. Reuters also reports that staffing agencies, like the one SMART Alabama used, are routinely criticized by labor advocates for allowing large corporations to pass on the blame for bad—or in this case, illegal and unconscionable—hiring practices. Labor experts also told Reuters that today's climate of labor shortages and supply-chain disruptions, increases the risk of child labor.
Police in Enterprise, Alabama—which found Tzi's daughter with a 21-year-old who also worked at the SMART plant in Georgia—notified the state attorney general's office, as it doesn't have jurisdiction in Luverne, Alabama, where the plant is located. Sources at the plant told Reuters that after Tzi's daughter's disappearance generated local media attention, SMART Alabama dismissed the child laborers.
"Consumers should be outraged," former OSHA offical David Michaels told Reuters. "They should know that these cars are being built, at least in part, by workers who are children and need to be in school rather than risking life and limb because their families are desperate for income."
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