85 years ago, the United States outlawed child abuse in sweatshop labor—a scourge that Franklin Roosevelt called “this ancient atrocity.” So, it came as a shock to find out in 2022 an American company owned by a Wall Street firm. Sends children under 13 to work in slaughterhouses. The indignity was all the more disturbing because the company, PSSI, claimed to be vital to national food security and its owner, Blackstone, a model of management. Both agencies said they had no idea they had recruited children in eight states. But it was clear to teachers in Grand Island, Nebraska, who witnessed acid burns on a child.
In our story, you will see only two pictures of children working in a slaughterhouse. For privacy reasons, the US Department of Labor will give us two, with blurred faces. But two may be enough. Their hard hats read “PSSI” for Packers Sanitation Services Inc. – the nation’s leading slaughterhouse cleaning service with 15,000 employees, at 432 plants, doing more than a billion dollars a year. No, it seemed, probably child abusers.
Shannon Riboledo: It seemed possible, but not necessarily possible. And if it’s possible, you know, maybe it was– somebody slipped through the cracks.
Shannon Rebolledo is a 17-year-old Labor Department investigator who is skeptical. But he went to Grand Island, Nebraska, last summer, when a middle school called police about acid burns on a 14-year-old girl’s hands and knees. The student explained that she worked nights at this slaughterhouse on the outskirts of town.
Scott Pelley: What did the teachers at Walnut Middle School tell you?
Shannon Reboledo: It seemed to be known in the community that the minors were either working or doing the overnight shift. They told us about children who fell asleep in class, um, who had burns, chemical burns. They were concerned for the safety of the children. They were worried that they were not able to stay awake and do their work, which is learning at school.
Scott Pelley: Because they were up all night.
Shannon Riboledo: Right.
‘All night long’ at JBS Slaughterhouse – a massive plant that produces 5% of the beef in America. JBS can slaughter 6,000 cows a day here, but every night, from 11 to 7 pm, the plant is handed over to PSSI for cleaning. Shannon Reboledo held back in the parking lot while JBS left and PSSI arrived.
Courtesy Department of Labor
Shannon Reboledo: And you really notice the difference in the appearance of these workers who are coming in to work these late night shifts.
Scott Pelley: What do you mean?
Shannon Rebolledo: They were, they were small. They look young.
He believed that children were washing bloody floors and razor-sharp instruments with itchy water and strong chemicals. So, Rebolledo returned with a team and a search warrant. He said they found nine children at work, a revelation that triggered a national audit of PSSI.
Scott Pele: And what did you find?
Shannon Riboledo: It was standard operating procedure. All over the country minors between the ages of 13 and 17 work overnight shifts
Scott Pele: Was it wrong?
Shannon Rebolledo: It’s just a mistake, a clerical error, there’s no way to get past a handful of rouge people. This was standard operating procedure.
Scott Pell: How many minors have you identified?
Shannon Reboledo: We were able to identify and confirm 102 juveniles at 13 different plants in eight different states.
Scott Pelley: Do you believe that 102 is the full dimension?
Shannon Riboledo: Not at all. I believe that number is probably much higher.
Last November, the Labor Department filed a case against PSSI. The company responded with: “PSSI has a complete company-wide prohibition” against hiring minors. It added, “We will vigorously defend ourselves against these claims.”
The statement said PSSI checks the eligibility of employees, including the girl, in a federal database. But that database is notorious for abuse in an industry that can struggle to find workers.
The jobs are serious and dangerous – and so they are often filled with migrants desperate for work. Some immigrants routinely use false documents to beat the federal identification system known as E-Verify. Employers have known for nearly 30 years that E-Verify is useless if an applicant has bought, borrowed, or stolen an original ID. And in the case of children, E-Verify was especially suspect.
Shannon Riboledo: These were not close calls. In some cases, they were working as young as 13 and PSSI identified them as being in their 30s. It’s just not possible.
In its statement when the suit was filed, PSSI said, apart from e-Verify, it has “industry-leading, best-in-class procedures…” including “extensive training, document verification, biometrics and multiple levels of audit.”
Shannon Rebolledo: The system they use automatically flags whether someone has certified they’re 18 or not. And what we found in our review was that anyone who didn’t certify that they were 18 was routinely ignored.
Scott Pell: Have any of the kids told you how long they’ve been working at the plant?
Shannon Riboledo: Yes.
Scott Pelley: And how long was it?
Shannon Reboledo: We looked back over a three-year period. So, we can confirm that they had minors working there in early 2019.
Four weeks after vowing to “vigorously defend itself”, the PSSI settled with the government. It did not dispute that it employed children. PSSI undertakes not to do so in future and agrees to conduct regular audits. The company paid a maximum fine of $1.5 million, which was about 1 percent of its cash on hand. The settlement ended the case but it did not answer the question – why. Children were paid the same as adults, so why hire children? Jessica Lima gives us insight into these questions—and the frustrations of workers.
Jessica Lima: Man, I know, we need money to live, to pay the bills, to pay the rent. But for me, it doesn’t. We just need– we just need a job.
Lima worked for PSSI, as an adult, at another plant. He told us that some fellows were children.
Jessica Lima: Like my kids, they’re the same age now. They should be in a school. They shouldn’t be there. For us, as adults, it is difficult. You can not imagine a for children. It’s not easy.
Scott Pelley: Do you believe the supervisors at PSSI knew they were recruiting children?
Jessica Lima: They know but they don’t say anything. Because they just need people to get the job done.
‘Making people work.’ Jessica Lima told us that labor turnover was high in the grueling, overnight work, but the pressure to open the slaughterhouses at dawn never yielded.
In Grand Island, many are to blame. In county court, two parents were convicted of child abuse or endangerment for sending the children to the plant. A mother was sentenced to 60 days in jail. And in this audio recording, Judge Arthur Wetzel sentenced a stepfather to 30 days in jail.
Judge Arthur Wetzel: Obviously, the company that employed this young woman has a lot to blame. Forcing young children to work on a kill floor in a cattle packing plant. Falsely identifying the young woman as 22 years old when she was 14. A mother who obtains false documents so that her child can work must be held responsible. Also, the elephant in the room, JBS, is responsible for hiring such a cleaning company to handle their affairs at their plant.
Parents bought false identities. Children were trained to lie. But it depends on the PSSI that its activities do not create a market for child labour. In its defense, a top PSSI official told us, off camera, “(We) own it.” “We know we did something wrong.” “It’s inexcusable.” PSSI now says it has fired more than three dozen local managers.
Shannon Rebolledo: The sheer nature, the systemic failure, I’ve never seen a systemic failure like it. Violations across the board at all these different positions, I’ve never seen anything like it.
Throughout the years investigations have found child labor, PSSI is owned by Wall Street’s Blackstone – the world’s largest private equity firm. Blackstone told us “extensive pre-investment due diligence showed that PSSI had industry-leading hiring compliance…” But it seems, due diligence failed to find what was obvious to investigators watching shift changes in the parking lot. Still, the investment giant said, “The claim of insufficient due diligence or oversight is simply false.” And still 102 children labor in 13 slaughterhouses in eight states.
Jessica Luman: We’re really, really angry and concerned that this is happening in the country today.
Jessica Luman is the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division Chief – Enforcement.
Scott Pelley: In your view, are these billionaires profiting off the sweat of children?
Jessica Luman: It was a systemic problem that was happening at PSSI and we had to think about what that meant for our society, what that meant for our economy. And what we have been adamant about in the Department of Labor and throughout this administration is that we will never rebuild our economy on the backs of children.
Scott Pelley: Sounds like the 19th century.
Jessica Luman: It’s happening in 2022, 2023 that we have kids working in meatpacking factories. And we should all be outraged.
Scott Pelley: It’s hard to imagine the brutality required.
Jessica Luman: It makes us all question what’s going wrong.
Neither Blackstone nor PSSI will make a corporate officer available for an on-camera interview. PSSI offered an attorney, hired by the Department of Labor after filing suit But he had no basic knowledge about recruiting children. Today, PSSI has a new CEO. It also pledged to spend $10 million on children’s welfare, among other things.
In Grand Island, the owner of the slaughterhouse, JBS, told us it did not know that children worked at its plant. JBS and other meatpackers fired PSSI at more than two dozen sites. PSSI told us “we are 100 per cent committed” to enforcing “our absolute prohibition” against child recruitment.
For Children’s Workers in Grand Island, privacy laws prevent officials from telling us much. But we do know that one child is in foster care and the others are with their parents.
SCOTT PELLEY: You know, after I’ve talked to these kids, after revealing what’s going on with them, what’s your hope for them now?
Shannon Riboledo: I hope they’re safe. I hope they have the opportunity to have children, go to school and not be tired. And if they work, I just, I hope that they will be able to work in a safe environment.
Produced by Henry Schuster and Sarah Turcotte. Broadcast Associate, Michelle Karim. Edited by Warren Lustig.