US: Hyundai subsidiary has used child labour at Alabama factory

Underage workers have recently worked at a metal stamping plant operated by SMART Alabama LLC



Photos: Reuters
Photos: Reuters

By Reuters

Published: Sat 23 Jul 2022, 7:55 AM

A subsidiary of Hyundai Motor Co has used child labour at a plant that supplies parts for the Korean car maker's assembly line in nearby Montgomery, Alabama, according to area police, the family of three underage workers, and eight former and current employees of the factory.

Underage workers, in some cases as young as 12, have 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 built by the auto-maker in Montgomery, its flagship US assembly plant.

In a statement sent after Reuters first published its findings on Friday, 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." It didn't answer detailed questions from Reuters about the findings.

SMART, in a separate statement, said it follows federal, state and local laws and "denies any allegation that it knowingly employed anyone who is ineligible for employment." The company said it relies on temporary work agencies to fill jobs and expects "these agencies to follow the law in recruiting, hiring, and placing workers on its premises."

SMART didn't answer specific questions about the workers cited in this story or on-the-job scenes they and other people familiar with the factory described.

Reuters learned of underage workers at the Hyundai-owned supplier following the brief disappearance in February of a Guatemalan migrant child from her family's home in Alabama.

The girl, who turns 14 this month, and her two brothers, aged 12 and 15, all worked at the plant earlier this year and weren't going to school, according to people familiar with their employment. Their father, Pedro Tzi, confirmed these people's account in an interview with Reuters.

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Police in the Tzi family's adopted hometown of Enterprise also told Reuters that the girl and her siblings had worked at SMART. The police, who helped locate the missing girl, at the time of their search identified her by name in a public alert.

The police force in Enterprise, about 45 miles from the plant in Luverne, doesn't have jurisdiction to investigate possible labour-law violations at the factory. Instead, the force notified the state attorney general's office after the incident, James Sanders, an Enterprise police detective, told Reuters.

Mike Lewis, a spokesperson at the Alabama attorney general's office, declined to comment. It's unclear whether the office or other investigators have contacted SMART or Hyundai about possible violations. On Friday, in response to Reuters' reporting, a spokesperon for the Alabama Department of Labour said it would be coordinating with the US Department of Labour and other agencies to investigate.

Pedro Tzi's children, who have now enrolled for the upcoming school term, were among a larger cohort of underage workers who found jobs at the Hyundai-owned supplier over the past few years, according to interviews with a dozen former and current plant employees and labour recruiters.

Several of these minors, they said, have foregone schooling in order to work long shifts at the plant, a sprawling facility with a documented history of health and safety violations, including amputation hazards.

Most of the current and former employees who spoke with Reuters did so on the condition of anonymity. Reuters was unable to determine the precise number of children who may have worked at the SMART factory, what the minors were paid or other terms of their employment.

The revelation of child labour in Hyundai's US supply chain could spark consumer, regulatory and reputational backlash for one of the most powerful and profitable auto-makers in the world. In a "human rights policy" posted online, Hyundai says it forbids child labour throughout its workforce, including suppliers.

The company recently said it will expand in the United States, planning over $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 labour for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, with whom Reuters shared the findings of its reporting.

"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," he added.

At a time of US labour shortages and supply chain disruptions, labour experts told Reuters there are heightened risks that children, especially undocumented migrants, could end up in workplaces that are hazardous and illegal for minors.

In Enterprise, home to a bustling poultry industry, Reuters earlier this year chronicled how a Guatemalan minor, who migrated to the United States alone, found work at a local chicken processing plant.


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