In this Jan. 27, 2011, file photo, a Hyundai Elantra, left, and Hyundai Sonatas move down the assembly line in the Hyundai manufacturing plant in Montgomery, Ala. The factory is supplied with parts from the Hyundai-owned SMART plant, a metal stamping facility where rampant exploitation of child labor has been exposed. | Mickey Welsh / Montgomery Advertiser via AP
LUVERNE, Alabama—Children as young as 12 have been discovered working at a Hyundai-owned metal stamping plant in Alabama, and other workers at the factory estimate that as many as 50 underage people may have been employed at the facility.
That according to a horrific exposé detailing the exploitation of child labor at a Hyundai subsidiary factory in the small Alabama town of Luverne published July 22 by Reuters. Investigating the disappearance of a child from a family of Guatemalan immigrants, the news agency discovered that this child, now 14, as well as her brothers, aged 12 and 15, had all worked at the SMART metal stamping plant in Luverne earlier in the year.
The children were not attending school, spending their days instead working in the Hyundai-owned factory.
This family’s experience is not an isolated case, however. Tabatha Moultry, another worker at the SMART plant, noted that the facility has a high turnover rate and that while she was employed there, she worked alongside a migrant girl who looked “11 or 12 years old.” When Moultry asked, the girl said she was 13.
When outrage spilled out in the local news media after the revelations, the plant dismissed many underage workers who were on its staff.
Both Hyundai and SMART deny accountability for the situation. The automobile giant claims it “does not tolerate illegal employment practices at any Hyundai entity.” SMART, in its statements, denies that it knowingly violated child labor laws and passes blame to the temp agencies it uses to find workers. SMART says it expects these agencies to “follow the law in recruiting, hiring, and placing workers on its premises.”
The SMART plant in Luverne has been tagged with $48,000 in OSHA penalties since 2013. Notable among the inspections that produced these fines include amputation and crush hazards—dangerous enough even for trained adult workers, let alone children. SMART boasts that it has the capacity to supply the parts for up to 400,000 vehicles yearly.
Pedro Tzi, the father of the three children profiled by Reuters, makes a living doing odd jobs in the construction and forestry industries. He previously worked at the SMART plant himself. Tzi expressed regret that his children had gone to work. He told Reuters that his family needed any income it could get of at the time. “All is over now,” he said. “The kids aren’t working, and in fall they will be in school.”
The child labor practices at SMART came to light after Tzi’s daughter went missing. Another worker at the plant had tricked her into leaving with him, and both of them were intercepted in Athens, Ga. Tzi’s daughter told police officers on the scene that her kidnapper had been traveling looking for new work opportunities.
The office Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall refused to comment on whether or not they have taken any action, despite having been previously informed by the police force of the town of Enterprise, which does not have jurisdiction over Luverne. The Alabama Department of Labor, however, announced that it would be cooperating with the U.S. Department of Labor and other agencies to investigate the child labor abuse at the SMART plant.
The public response has been swift and overwhelming. The horrid tale went viral online, with many labor commentators, academics, politicians, publications, and others denouncing the Hyundai parts supplier.
Alabama talk radio show host Jacob Morrison, from The Valley Labor Report, who is also Secretary-Treasurer of the North Alabama Area Labor Council of the AFL-CIO, took a strong stand on the refusal to comment by the attorney general’s office. He posted a July 25 video titled “Alabama Attorney General Doesn’t Care About Child Labor in His State."
“It took 82 minutes, less than two hours, for him [Marshall] to jump into action to ensure that the law will force children in Alabama to carry incest and rape pregnancies to term,” Morrison said, referring to Marshall’s quick action following the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.
“Yet after five months, almost half a year, [his office] did not have a position…[to]…tell the press on the issue of child labor in a plant with rampant safety issues to include amputation hazards.”
Josh Moon, a columnist for the Alabama Political Reporter, tweeted, “This is the sort of crap that happens when your AG [Attorney General] is more concerned with self promotion, meaningless grandstanding, and staffing an insurrection than just doing the job.”
“The only thing that will stop the greed of capitalism is us. Child labor laws are union made. Our rights are never absolute. The Labor Movement—working people—fought and died for our rights. It’s our turn to fight. Organize now. Organize everywhere.”
An activist with the Communist Party USA in Alabama, Kent T., told People’s World:
“We must remember that they [SMART] dismissed these child workers only when the public discovered what was happening and were disgusted,” Pointing to the conditions of the poor and immigrants face in the U.S., he said, “The poverty that forced these children into the factory in the first place should not exist in the richest country on earth. However, the people have power, and every injustice can be overcome with organization and unity.”
People’s World attempted to ascertain what staffing agencies are currently being used by the SMART plant, with a particular focus on those agencies already known to be utilized by other automotive parts suppliers in Alabama. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your perspective, we could not find any current listings from any such agencies connected to the Luverne SMART plant as of press time.
Zackery Corley is an activist in Alabama.
This article was republished from Peoples World.