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EXCLUSIVE Hyundai Subsidiary Uses Child Labor at Alabama Plant

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LUVERNE, Alabama, July 22 (Reuters) – 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. and eight former and current employees of the plant.

The underage workers, who were as young as 12 in some cases, recently worked at a metal stamping plant operated by SMART Alabama LLC, the people said. SMART, listed as Hyundai’s controlling arm in corporate documents, supplies parts for some of the automaker’s most popular cars and SUVs manufactured in Montgomery, its flagship US assembly plant.

In a statement sent after Reuters first released its findings on Friday, Hyundai (005380.KS) said it “does not tolerate illegal employment practices in any Hyundai business. We have policies and procedures in place that require compliance with all local, state and federal laws.” He did not respond to detailed questions from Reuters about the findings.

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SMART, in a separate statement, said it follows federal, state, and local laws and “denies any claims that it knowingly hired anyone who is not eligible for the job.” The company said it relies on temporary employment agencies to fill vacancies and expects “these agencies will follow the law in recruiting, hiring and placing workers on its territory.”

SMART did not answer specific questions about the workers mentioned in the story or the workplace scenes they and others familiar with the factory described.

Reuters learned of the underage workers at a Hyundai-owned supplier after a Guatemalan migrant child briefly disappeared in February from her family’s home in Alabama.

The girl, who turns 14 this month, and her two brothers, aged 12 and 15, worked at the plant earlier this year and did not go to school, according to people familiar with their work. Their father, Pedro Qi, confirmed the version of these people in an interview with Reuters.

Police in Enterprise, Qi’s hometown, also told Reuters that the girl and her siblings worked for SMART. The police, who helped find the missing girl, identified her by name in the ad during the search.

Reuters does not use her name in this article because she is underage.

The Enterprise police, about 45 miles from the Luverne plant, have no authority to investigate possible labor law violations at the plant. Instead, police notified the state attorney general’s office of 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 is not clear if the office or other investigators contacted SMART or Hyundai about possible violations. On Friday, in response to a Reuters report, an Alabama Department of Labor spokesman said he would coordinate the investigation with the US Department of Labor and other agencies.

According to interviews with a dozen former and current plant employees and labor recruiters.

Some of these juveniles, they say, forgo their schooling to work long shifts at the factory, a sprawling enterprise with a documented history of health and safety violations, including amputation hazards.

Most current and former employees who spoke to Reuters did so on condition of anonymity. Reuters was unable to determine the exact number of children who could work at the SMART factory, how much the minors were paid, or other conditions of their employment.

Exposure of child labor in Hyundai’s U.S. supply chain could spark backlash from consumers, regulators and the reputation of one of the world’s most powerful and profitable automakers. In a “human rights policy” posted online, Hyundai says it prohibits the use of child labor among its employees, including suppliers.

The company recently said it would expand in the United States, planning investments of more than $5 billion, including a new electric vehicle plant near Savannah, Georgia.

“Consumers should be outraged,” said David Michaels, a former Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, with whom Reuters shared the findings of its report.

“They need to know that these cars are, at least in part, being built by workers who are children and have to go to school and not risk life and limb because their families are desperate for income,” he added.

During a time of US labor shortages and supply chain disruptions, labor experts have told Reuters that there is an increased risk that children, especially undocumented migrants, could end up in jobs that are dangerous and illegal for minors.

At the Enterprise, home to a bustling poultry farm, Reuters earlier this year reported on how a minor Guatemalan citizen who emigrated to the United States alone found work at a local chicken processing plant.

“TOO YOUNG”

Alabama state and federal laws prohibit minors under the age of 18 from working in stamping and metal stamping operations such as SMART where proximity to dangerous equipment could put them at risk. Alabama law also requires children under 17 to be enrolled in school.

Michaels, who is currently a professor at George Washington University, said the safety of Hyundai’s U.S. suppliers was a constant concern to OSHA during the eight years he ran the agency until he stepped down in 2017. Michaels visited Korea in 2015 and said he warned Hyundai. executives that the high demand for just-in-time parts was leading to safety violations.

The SMART plant assembles parts for the popular Elantra, Sonata and Santa Fe models, which accounted for nearly 37% of Hyundai’s U.S. sales through June, according to the automaker. The factory has repeatedly received OSHA fines for health and safety violations, according to federal filings.

A review of Reuters reports shows that SMART has been fined at least $48,515 by OSHA since 2013, and was fined most recently this year. OSHA inspections at SMART have documented violations including crush and amputation hazards at the plant.

The plant, whose website says it can supply parts for 400,000 vehicles a year, is also struggling to retain a workforce to keep up with Hyundai’s demand.

At the end of 2020, SMART wrote a letter to the US Consulate in Mexico asking for a visa for a Mexican worker. The letter, written by SMART CEO Gary Sport and read by Reuters, said the plant was “grossly understaffed” and that Hyundai “will not tolerate such shortcomings.”

SMART did not respond to questions from Reuters about the letter.

Earlier this year, lawyers filed a class action lawsuit against SMART and several staffing firms that help secure US visas for workers. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on behalf of a group of about 40 Mexican workers, alleges that some workers hired as engineers were ordered to do menial work instead.

SMART, in court documents, called the allegations in the lawsuit “baseless” and “baseless”.

According to current and former SMART employees and local recruiters, many of the underage workers at the plant were recruited through recruitment agencies.

While staffing firms help fill industrial jobs across the country, they are often criticized by labor advocates because they allow large employers to outsource the responsibility of making sure employees fit the job.

One former SMART worker, an adult migrant who left last year for another job in the auto industry, said there were about 50 underage workers between different factory shifts, adding that he knew some of them personally. Another former adult SMART employee, a U.S. citizen who also left the plant last year, said she worked alongside a dozen minors during her shift.

Another former employee, Tabatha Moultrie, 39, worked on the SMART assembly line for several years until 2019. Moultrie said the plant has a high turnover rate and has increasingly relied on migrant workers to keep up with intense production demand. She said she remembers working with one migrant girl who “looked like 11 or 12”.

According to Moultrie, the girl will come to work with her mother. When Moultrie asked her real age, the girl replied that she was 13 years old. “She was too young to work at this or any other plant,” Moultrie said. Moultrie did not provide more details about the girl, and Reuters was unable to independently confirm her account.

Qi, the missing girl’s father, contacted Enterprise Police on February 3 after she did not return home. Police have issued an amber alert, a public alert, when law enforcement believes a child is in danger.

They also launched a manhunt for 21-year-old Alvaro Cucula, another immigrant from Guatemala and around the same time, a SMART worker whom Qi believed she might be with. Using mobile phone geolocation data, police located Kukul and the girl in a parking lot in Athens, Georgia.

The girl told the officers that Kukul was her friend and that they had come there looking for other job opportunities. Kukul was arrested and then deported, according to people familiar with his deportation. Kukul did not respond to a Reuters Facebook post asking for comment.

After the disappearance sparked local news coverage, SMART laid off several underage workers, according to two former employees and other locals familiar with the plant. Sources said police attention has raised concerns that authorities may soon crack down on other underage workers.

Qi’s father also once worked at SMART and now works odd jobs in the construction and forestry industries. He told Reuters that he regrets that his children went to work. He added that the family needed whatever income it could get at the time, but is now trying to move on.

“It’s all over now,” he said. “Children don’t work, and in the fall they will go to school.”

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Editing by Paulo Prada

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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