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 filings as a majority-owned unit, supplies parts for some of the most popular cars and SUVs the automaker builds at Montgomery, its flagship US assembly plant.

In a statement sent after the release of the first results 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”. He did not respond to detailed questions about the results.

SMART, in a separate statement, said it abides by federal, state and local laws and “denies any allegations that it knowingly employed anyone who is not eligible for employment.” The company said it relies on temporary work agencies to fill jobs and expects “those agencies to follow the law in recruiting, hiring and placing workers on its premises. “.

SMART did not respond to specific questions about the workers cited in this story or the work scenes they and others familiar with the plant described.

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

The girl, who will turn 14 this month, and her two brothers, aged 12 and 15, all worked at the factory earlier this year and did not go to school, according to people familiar with their jobs. Their father, Pedro Tzi, confirmed these people’s words in an interview.

Police in Enterprise, the Tzi family’s adopted hometown, also said the girl and her siblings worked at SMART. Police, who helped locate the missing girl, identified her by name when looking for her in a public alert.

Her name is not used in this article because she is underage.

Enterprise police, about 45 miles from the Luverne plant, have no jurisdiction to investigate possible labor law violations at the plant. Instead, the force notified the state attorney general’s office after the incident, said James Sanders, a police detective with the company.

Mike Lewis, spokesman for the Alabama attorney general’s office, declined to comment. It’s unclear whether the bureau or other investigators have contacted SMART or Hyundai about possible violations. In response to reports on Friday, a spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Labor said it would coordinate with the US Department of Labor and other agencies to investigate.

Pedro Tzi’s children, who are now enrolled for the next school term, were part of a larger cohort of underage workers who found employment with the Hyundai-owned supplier in recent years, according to interviews with a dozen former and current factory employees and workforce. recruiters.

Several of those miners, they said, gave up school to work long hours at the factory, a sprawling facility with a documented history of health and safety violations, including amputation risks. .

Most current and former employees who spoke on the issue did so on condition of anonymity. The precise number of children who may have worked at the SMART factory could not be determined, including what the minors were paid or other conditions of their employment.

The revelation of child labor in Hyundai’s US supply chain could spark a 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 child labor in all of its workforce, including suppliers.

The company recently said it would expand into 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, the former US undersecretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, with whom the report’s findings were shared.

“They should know that these cars are built, at least in part, by workers who are children and need to be in school rather than risk their lives and physical integrity because their families desperately need the income,” he added.

At a time of labor shortages in the United States and supply chain disruptions, labor experts said there are heightened risks that children, especially undocumented migrants, will find themselves in dangerous and illegal workplaces for minors.

In Enterprise, home to a booming poultry industry, Reuters reported earlier this year how a Guatemalan miner, who emigrated to the United States alone, found work at a local chicken processing plant.

“MUCH TOO YOUNG”

Alabama and federal laws prohibit minors under the age of 18 from working in metal stamping and pressing operations such as SMART, where proximity to hazardous machinery may endanger them. Alabama law also requires children 17 and under to be enrolled in school.

Michaels, who is now a professor at George Washington University, said the safety of American suppliers to Hyundai was a recurring concern at OSHA during his eight years at the helm of the agency until his departure in 2017. Michaels visited Korea in 2015 and said he warned Hyundai executives that its high demand for “just-in-time” parts was leading to safety lapses.

The SMART plant manufactures parts for the popular Elantra, Sonata and Santa Fe models, vehicles which until June accounted for nearly 37% of Hyundai’s sales in the United States, according to the automaker. The plant has received repeated sanctions from OSHA for health and safety violations, according to federal records.

A review of records shows SMART has been assessed with at least $48,515 in OSHA penalties since 2013, and was most recently fined this year. OSHA inspections at SMART have documented plant violations including crush and amputation hazards.

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 Hyundai’s demand.

In late 2020, SMART wrote a letter to U.S. consular officials in Mexico requesting a visa for a Mexican worker. The letter, written by SMART chief executive Gary Sport, said the plant was “severely understaffed” and that Hyundai “will not tolerate such deficiencies”.

SMART did not respond to questions on the letter.

Earlier this year, attorneys filed a class action lawsuit against SMART and several staffing companies that help provide workers with US visas. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on behalf of a group of approximately 40 Mexican workers, alleges that certain employees, hired as engineers, were ordered to perform menial work at the place.

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