The Tender Years

jbs plant 2020 nbc news website feature

Immigrant Legal Center—our ILJ Network site in Nebraska—reaches out to help immigrant child workers at a meat processing plant in Grand Island, Nebraska

With its combination of hot water, animal fat, and caustic soap, the “kill floor” of a meatpacking plant is treacherously slippery. The machinery—bone-cutting saws, meat slicers, and grinders—is extremely sharp and dangerous. And every night, all of it must be thoroughly cleaned to prepare for the arrival of the workers who keep the nation supplied with meat.

child worker pixelated grand island pssi dept of labor photo by whi lopez resized for website
A young worker (pixilated) on the cleaning crew at the JBS plant in Grand Island, Nebraska. Photo by WHI Lopez, DOL

She was only 14 years old, and yet this was her job five to six days a week, from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.—what is known, appropriately enough, as the graveyard shift.

Her middle school teachers noticed the girl struggled to stay awake in class. They also noticed the chemical burns on her hands.

School officials called the police, and soon the Department of Labor (DOL) began its investigation of Packers Sanitation Services, Inc. (PSSI), which operates at hundreds of meat processing facilities throughout the U.S. 

In Grand Island alone, some 30 children between the ages of 13 and 17 have been identified as alleged victims of PSSI’s oppressive child labor. 

Because the minors were immigrants, speaking only Spanish or an indigenous language, and may have arrived in the U.S. as unaccompanied children (UCs), the DOL contacted Immigrant Legal Center—our ILJ Network site in Nebraska—to offer the children legal screening and direct representation in any available immigration remedies. 

“The DOL has asked DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] to consider these children for temporary protection in the form of parole or deferred action during the investigation,” explains ILC Legal Director Anna Deal.  “But DOL also indicated it is open to supporting more permanent remedies for qualifying children if we identify facts that establish their eligibility.”

These remedies could include U Visas (for victims of certain crimes who are helpful to law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity), T Visas (for survivors of human trafficking), and Special Immigrant Juvenile status (for minors who were abandoned or neglected by a parent).

An ILC team of attorneys and social workers began going into the community and schools to meet with the minors and others. It has not been an easy undertaking.

Most of the 30 children have never been enrolled in school, making it difficult to locate them and offer them services.  Of those kids ILC has met with, many have been reluctant to speak with us,” says Anna. “We suspect they are terrified that something is going to happen to their sponsor or family members based on the DOL or DHS investigation.”

Many of the minors are also confused about ILC’s role in Grand Island, and don’t grasp the difference between ILC and the various government agencies involved. “After we met with several of the children,” Anna says, “DHS investigators pulled them out of class and took them to a local ICE facility to interview them. This caused a lot of unnecessary confusion and fear.”

Based on the DOL’s ongoing investigation, the government filed a suit against PSSI in November, citing the child labor violations, unsafe conditions, and management’s efforts to obstruct the investigation.  

PSSI has some of the worst rates of workplace injuries in the country, but this was the first time they were charged with child labor violations. They are adamant that they had no way of knowing these vulnerable workers were underage.

photo by lane hickenbottom/omaha headshot co.
ILC Legal Director Anna Deal

“Having met these children,” says Anna, “it is simply implausible that PSSI did not know they were minors. They look even younger than their real age.”

“DOL’s investigation and our conversations with impacted children strongly suggest that hiring minors has long been PSSI’s business practice,” Anna adds. “It’s not difficult to imagine that unaccompanied immigrant children are easier for the company to manipulate and exploit.”  

Despite denying any culpability, PSSI agreed to a consent order which requires them to implement outside monitoring, accept oversight by a compliance officer, and report to DOL on a regular basis for the next three years. JBS Foods—a Brazilian company that operates the meatpacking plants where child workers were discovered—has also canceled their contract with PSSI.

Just last week, news outlets reported that federal investigators are now looking into whether the child workers at JBS Grand Island and another JBS plant in Minnesota may have been victims of traffickers who forced them to work and profited from their labor.

Meanwhile, ILC attorneys and social workers continue to meet with the underage workers to offer their counsel and support. 

“This situation demonstrates the extreme vulnerability of unaccompanied immigrant children and the importance of early intervention,” states Anna. “Every UC deserves legal representation and supportive case management immediately upon their arrival in the U.S. so they will not fall prey to exploitative corporations like PSSI.

“With respect to the kids and families in this case,” she adds, “we hope to continue to earn their trust and ensure they access the supportive benefits and immigration remedies for which they qualify.  We are prepared to continue working with them for as long as it takes.”

For further reading:

PSSI has been acquired by four different private equity firms since 2007. The private equity firm owners have aggressively sought to reduce wages, benefits, and staffing at firms they acquire – with devastating consequences for workers, their families, and their entire communities. According to OSHA data on severe injuries, PSSI stood out as a particularly dangerous workplace with one of the highest numbers of serious injury reports compared to its relatively small number of employees.

Profit over Safety: Private Equity’s Leveraged Bet on Packers Sanitation.

Updated February 23, 2023

migrant child workers ny times feb 23 2023NY Times Investigative reporter Hannah Dreier traveled across the country, speaking to more than 100 migrant child workers in 20 states for this explosive and revealing report.

Read Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children work Brutal Jobs across the U.S.


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