GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — West Michigan is at the forefront of a new report accusing a food manufacturer of violating child labor laws by hiring underage workers.
An Illinois-based food manufacturer with production locations in Kent County illegally employed underage migrant children in unsafe conditions, according to a new report from The New York Times.
The investigation found that Hearthside Food Solutions, a food processing manufacturer with four production locations in Kent County, violated child labor laws by employing young workers in dangerous jobs. Hearthside has operated four facilities in the area since 2009.
“It’s the most hidden workforce,” Teresa Hendricks, executive director & senior litigator at Migrant Legal Aid, said Sunday in an interview with News 8. “Even though I’m not surprised by it, it doesn’t shock me at all, a lot of people are taken aback by what really goes on to get their food on their plate.”
Hearthside is one of the nation’s largest contract manufacturers, making food for companies like General Mills and Frito-Lay. Some underage workers told The Times that moving cereal all night on conveyor belts hurt their backs and their lungs would sting from spicy dust from large batches of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
At least one was a Union High School student who, according to their teacher, dropped out of school as they worked late nights in production.
“They have to work to survive,” Hendricks explained. “They have to be hired. And when they have to choose between school or earning a living to cover their basic needs or cover expenses for their families back home, they will choose work over their health and over their education every time.”
Hendricks has worked as a migrant lawyer in Grand Rapids for more than three decades. She says sadly, the report isn’t surprising.
“I’ve represented 4- and 6-year-old workers for wage claims,” Hendricks said. “It’s not surprising when I hear of exploitation in our food supply chain. It’s not surprising that it’s dealing with younger workers. Especially when we have a labor shortage right now, and it’s been growing.”
Hearthside reportedly hired underage workers through the Grand Rapids employment agency Forge Industrial Staffing, The Times reported. Three people who used to work at the agency told The Times that Hearthside supervisors were made aware they were getting younger-looking workers whose identities were flagged as false, but nothing was done about it.
Hearthside reportedly admitted to The Times it did not require Forge to verify ages through a national system that checks social security numbers.
In a statement to News 8, Hearthside said it’s “appalled” by the article and takes the allegations seriously.
The company said it has hired an advisory firm and an independent law firm to conduct a review of the company’s employment practices, third-party employee engagements, plant safety protocols and standards of business conduct. The review is expected to take 60 days.
Hearthside also said it has taken steps to confirm all of its workers are above the age of 18 and comply with all laws and regulations.
“Specifically, everyone entering our facilities must confirm their identity with a government-issued ID that must match the information on the facility badge,” the company elaborated.
Forge told The Times it complied with the law and would never knowingly employ individuals under 18.
News 8 has reached out to Forge for a statement, and as of the publication of this article, we have yet to hear back.
Hendricks hopes the report will lead to improved working conditions and more oversight and accountability of the industry.
“I’ve been representing farm workers for 30 years,” Hendricks said. “This goes back to my very beginnings. Every 10 years there’ll be a major expose where it’s exposed, but in between those times, it stays hidden as a private secret. Actually, it’s an open secret.”