June 24, 2024

Feds investigate death of 16-year-old boy at Mississippi Mar-Jac poultry plant

A 16-year-old boy from Guatemala died last week after his body became stuck in the machinery he was hired to clean at a poultry processing plant in Hattiesburg, Miss., prompting two federal investigations.

According to a police report, authorities found the body of Duvan Pérez trapped in a conveyor belt around 8 pm on Friday. After performing an autopsy, Forrest County Coroner Butch Benedict determined that Pérez’s death was accidental as a result of fatal injuries from workplace equipment. The autopsy results will be released next week after a pathologist examines the body, he said.

Pérez’s death is the third at the Mar-Jac Poultry plant in the past three years, according to data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Pérez’s death comes just two weeks after a 16-year-old boy died following a workplace incident at Wisconsin sawmill. The cases have drawn criticism of the use of child labor as Republican lawmakers have pushed bills to loosen protections — despite a surge in high-profile cases involving mostly migrant children working in some of the nation’s most dangerous industries.

The conservative campaign to rewrite child labor laws

“How many more children must die?” Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest union federation, tweeted Wednesday. “We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Any legislator who wants to undermine child labor laws, in 2023, is a disgrace.”

Since 1938, federal law which prohibited anyone under the age of 18 from having a “particularly hazardous” or “harmful” occupation — including operating or cleaning the machines found inside meat and poultry processing plants. Still, the Department of Labor has recorded that An increase of 69 percent in children employed in violation of federal law since 2018. With agencies finding more than 3,800 children were illegally employed — 688 of whom worked in hazardous occupations — fiscal 2022 was the year with the highest number of incidents since 2008, according to the Labor Department details.

In one investigation last year, federal investigators found scores of migrant children was hired to sanitize meat packing plants across the country. Some described harrowing night shifts spent using industrial-grade chemicals to clean dangerous and sharp machinery — sometimes, suffering chemical burns or sleep deprivation that disrupted their schooling, The Post previously reported.

Now, Pérez’s death has pushed two divisions of the Department of Labor — OSHA and the Wage and Hour Division — to launch investigations, an agency spokesman said.

A cleaning company illegally employed a 13-year-old. Her family is paying the price.

Hattiesburg police have also opened an investigation, a spokesman said.

Mar-Jac Poultry said the teenager’s death was a “tragedy” that was “awakened when we found out the victim was a minor.” The company said Pérez “should not have been hired,” adding that it relies on staffing companies to hire candidates, whose ages and immigration status must be verified through the government’s electronic E-Verify system.

“Mar-Jac would never knowingly put any employee, and certainly not a minor, in harm’s way but it appears, at this point in the investigation, that this person’s age and identity was misrepresented on the paperwork,” the company said, adding that it would “thoroughly audit with the staffing companies to ensure that this type of error does not occur again.”

In the past three years, at least two other employees have died after workplace-related incidents at the Hattiesburg Mar-Jac Poultry plant, OSHA records show. In 2020, 33-year-old Joel Velasco Toto was killed. The plant was fined $6,827.

A year later, 28-year-old Bobby Butler died after allegedly being caught in a piece of machinery OSHA report. Mar-Jac was fined $27,306 for his death in 2021, but the company is contesting the penalties, records show.

Thousands of youths illegally employed to clean meat plants, says Labor Department

Before those deaths, the Department of Labor in 2009 recommended $379,800 in penalties against Mar-Jac after issuing 37 serious safety and health violations.

“Mar-Jac Poultry management should not wait for a serious injury or death to occur to any of its workers before making the necessary changes to its safety and health program,” Gei-Thae, director of OSHA’s Atlanta-East area office, said in a news release. that year.

The company did not immediately respond to questions about the incidents.

In Hattiesburg, a city about 90 miles southeast of Jackson, Pérez’s death caused a stir. The teen, who immigrated to the United States six years ago, loved spending time with his family, going to the gym and listening to music, according to the obituary. One of his “greatest achievements” was buying his own car.

“Our hearts are deeply saddened by the loss of this young Latino worker,” the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity, a nonprofit organization based in Jackson, said in a. statement. “Our Latinx and Native families come here to the United States seeking a better life for ourselves and our children.”

“We chase a dream that doesn’t exist,” the statement reads.

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