Federal authorities are investigating the use of underage workers at a chicken plant in Walker County. Investigators report they found six underage workers at the huge Mar Jac Poultry Plant in Jasper working under “oppressive child labor” conditions. The 1,000-employee facility is the largest employer in Walker County.

This is not the company's first run-in with federal authorities over underage employees. A 16-year-old employee died last July at a Hattiesburg, Mississippi Mar Jac chicken processing plant. That incident sparked an investigation by the Occupational and Safety Hazard Administration (OSHA).

Mar-Jac Poultry was cited with 17 violations in the death of the teen who became caught in a machine. The company was also leveled $200,000 in fines.

In the Walker County case, attorneys for the U.S. Department of Labor filed a civil action against Mar Jac on May 7 to stop the production and sale of all goods tainted with child labor through May 31.

“On May 1, 2024, investigators with the Wage and Hour Division, U.S. Department of Labor, discovered oppressive child labor at Defendant’s poultry processing facility, namely children working on the kill floor deboning poultry and cutting carcasses,” the court documents stated. “The children had been working at the facility for months, and Defendant continually removed goods from the facility the entire time.”

Mar Jac attorneys in a court filing claim the employees had used forged documents, passed the E-Verify system, and were terminated after their real ages came to light.

Alabama’s current child labor laws allow for 14- and 15-year-olds to work after they have been issued an eligibility to work form from their school or, if homeschooled, a parent or instructor. The form indicates a student has achieved satisfactory grades and attendance record.

During the legislative session just completed, State Representative Susan Dubose (R-Hoover) proposed removing the requirement for workers younger than the age of 16 to obtain an eligibility to work form before getting a job. It did not pass.

Dubose's bill follows the trend of state’s loosening child labor protections in an attempt to combat the ongoing labor shortage. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 28 states have introduced or enacted laws weakening child labor protections since 2021.

Under federal law, a child 16 or 17 years old, can be employed for unlimited hours in any occupation other than those declared hazardous by the Secretary of Labor. 14- or 15-year-olds, can only work outside of school hours.

Aside from Alabama and Mississippi, Mar Jac also operates a facility in Gainsville, GA.

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