A subsidiary of Hyundai Motor Co used child labor at a plant that supplies parts for the Korean automaker’s assembly line in nearby Montgomery, Alabama, according to area police, the family of three underage workers, and eight former and current factory employees.
Underage workers, in some cases as young as 12, recently worked at a metal stamping plant operated by SMART Alabama LLC, these people said. SMART, listed by Hyundai in corporate documents as a majority-owned unit, supplies parts for some of the most popular cars and SUVs built by the automaker at Montgomery, its main US assembly plant.
In a statement sent after Reuters first published its findings on Friday, Hyundai (005380.KS) said it “does not tolerate illegal labor practices at any Hyundai entity. We have policies and procedures in place that require compliance with all local, state, and federal laws. laws.” He did not respond to detailed questions from Reuters about the findings.
Smart, in a separate statement, said he follows federal, state and local laws and “denies any allegation that he knowingly employed someone who is not eligible for employment.” The company said it relies on temporary employment agencies to fill jobs and expects “these agencies to follow the law in recruiting, hiring and placing workers at their facilities.”
Smart did not answer specific questions about the workers cited in this story or the scenes at work described by them and others familiar with the factory.
Reuters learned of underage workers at the Hyundai-owned supplier following the brief disappearance in February of a Guatemalan migrant boy from his family’s home in Alabama.
The girl, who turns 14 this month, and her two brothers, ages 12 and 15, worked at the plant earlier this year and were out of school, according to people familiar with their jobs. Her father, Pedro Tzi, confirmed the story of these people in an interview with Reuters.
Police in Enterprise, the Tzi family’s adopted hometown, also told Reuters the girl and her siblings had worked at SMART. The police, who helped locate the missing girl, at the time of their search for her identified her by name in a public alert.
Reuters does not use his name in this article because he is a minor.
The police force at Enterprise, about 45 miles from the plant in Luverne, has no jurisdiction to investigate possible labor 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 spokesman for the Alabama attorney general’s office, declined to comment. It’s unclear if the bureau or other investigators have contacted SMART or Hyundai about possible violations. On Friday, responding to the Reuters reports, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Labor said he would coordinate with the US Department of Labor and other agencies to investigate.
Pedro Tzi’s children, now enrolled for the upcoming school term, were among a larger cohort of underage workers who found work at the Hyundai-owned supplier in recent years, according to interviews with a dozen current employees. and previous plant and labor. recruiters
Several of these minors, they said, have given up school to work long shifts at the plant, a sprawling facility with a documented history of health and safety violations, including amputation risks.
Most of the current and former employees who spoke to Reuters did so on condition of anonymity. Reuters was unable to determine the precise number of children who may have worked at the SMART factory, how much the children were paid or other terms of their employment.
The revelation of child labor in Hyundai’s US supply chain could spark a consumer, regulatory and reputational backlash for one of the world’s most powerful and profitable automakers. In a “human rights policy” posted online, Hyundai says it prohibits child labor in its entire workforce, including suppliers.
The company recently said it will expand in the United States, planning more than $5 billion in investments, including a new electric vehicle factory near Savannah, Georgia.
“Consumers should be outraged,” said David Michaels, a former US assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, with whom Reuters shared its report findings.
“They should know that these cars are being built, at least in part, by workers who are children and need to be in school instead of risking their lives because their families are desperate for an income,” he added.
At a time of U.S. labor shortages and supply chain disruptions, labor experts told Reuters there are heightened risks that children, especially undocumented immigrants, could end up in workplaces that are dangerous and illegal for minors.
In Enterprise, home to a bustling poultry industry, Reuters earlier this year recounted how a Guatemalan minor, who immigrated to the United States alone, found work at a local chicken processing plant.
Alabama and federal laws limit those under the age of 18 from working in metal stamping and pressing operations like SMART, where proximity to dangerous machinery can put them at risk. Alabama law also requires children under the age of 17 to be enrolled in school.
Michaels, who is now a professor at George Washington University, said the safety of U.S.-based Hyundai suppliers was a recurring concern at OSHA during his eight years at the helm of the agency until he left in 2017. Michaels visited Korea in 2015 and said he warned executives that their high demand for “just-in-time” parts was causing safety lapses.
The SMART plant makes parts for popular Elantra, Sonata and Santa Fe models, vehicles that through June accounted for nearly 37% of Hyundai’s US sales, according to the automaker. The factory has received repeated penalties from OSHA for health and safety violations, federal records show.
A Reuters review of records shows SMART has been assessed at least $48,515 in OSHA fines since 2013, most recently fined this year. OSHA inspections at SMART have documented violations including crushing and amputation hazards in the factory.
The plant, whose website says it has the capacity to supply parts for up to 400,000 vehicles each year, has also struggled to retain labor to meet demand from Hyundai.
In late 2020, SMART wrote a letter to US consular officials in Mexico requesting a visa for a Mexican worker. The letter, written by SMART general manager Gary Sport and reviewed by Reuters, said the plant was “seriously understaffed” and that Hyundai “will not tolerate such deficiencies.”
SMART did not respond to questions from Reuters about the letter.
Earlier this year, attorneys filed a class-action lawsuit against SMART and several staffing companies that help provide US visas to workers. The suit, filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on behalf of a group of about 40 Mexican workers, alleges that some employees, hired as engineers, were ordered to do menial jobs.
SMART in court documents called the allegations in the lawsuit “baseless” and “meritless.”
Many of the minors at the plant were hired through recruitment agencies, according to current and former SMART workers and local labor recruiters.
Although staffing companies help fill industrial jobs across the country, they have often been criticized by labor advocates because they allow large employers to outsource the responsibility of verifying employees’ eligibility to work.
A former SMART employee, an adult migrant who left for another job in the auto industry last year, said there were about 50 underage workers between different shifts at the plant, adding that he knew some of them personally. Another former adult SMART worker, a US citizen who also left the plant last year, said she worked alongside a dozen minors on her shift.
Another former employee, Tabatha Moultry, 39, worked on SMART’s assembly line for several years until 2019. Moultry said the plant had a high turnover and increasingly relied on migrant workers to keep up with intense demands. of production. She said that she remembered working with a migrant girl who “seemed to be 11 or 12 years old.”
The girl would come to work with her mother, Moultry said. When Moultry asked her her real age, the girl said that she was 13 years old. “She was too young to work at that plant or any plant,” Moultry said. Moultry did not provide any further details about the girl and Reuters was unable to independently confirm her account.
Tzi, the father of the missing girl, contacted Enterprise police on Feb. 3 after she failed to return home. Police have issued an amber alert, a public notice when police believe a child is in danger.
They also launched a search for Álvaro Cucul, 21, another Guatemalan migrant and SMART worker at the time who Tzi believed she might be with. Using cell phone geolocation data, police located Cucul and the girl in a parking lot in Athens, Georgia.
The girl told the officers that Cucul was a friend and that they had traveled there to look for other job opportunities. Cucul was arrested and later deported, according to people familiar with his deportation. Cucul did not respond to a Facebook message from Reuters seeking comment.
After the disappearance generated local news coverage, SMART laid off several underage workers, according to two former employees and other locals familiar with the plant. The sources said the police attention raised fears that authorities could soon crack down on other underage workers.
Tzi, the father, also worked at SMART and now works odd jobs in the construction and forestry industries. He told Reuters that he is sorry that his children have gone to work. The family needed whatever income he could get at the time, he added, but now he is trying to move on.
“That’s all over now,” he said. “The children are not working and in the fall they will be in school.”