Hyundai subsidiary Smart Alabama LLC allegedly employed underage workers as young as 12 years old at its facility in Luverne, Alabama, according a Reuters investigation. The Smart metal stamping plant makes parts for the Hyundai Elantra, Santa Fe and Sonata models produced at the automaker's flagship U.S. plant in nearby Montgomery.
Alabama law prohibits minors under 18 from working in metal stamping and pressing facilities like Smart specifically because of the hazards presented by the machinery. Underage employment isn't the only issue with the Smart factory, though. The Reuters report notes that it has "a documented history of health and safety violations, including amputation hazards." Despite those hazards, sources familiar with the matter paint the picture of a company willing to look the other way on employment eligibility so long as its products get out on time. Reuters writes:
One former worker at SMART, an adult migrant who left for another auto industry job last year, said there were around 50 underage workers between the different plant shifts, adding that he knew some of them personally. Another former adult worker at SMART, a U.S. citizen who also left the plant last year, said she worked alongside about a dozen minors on her shift.
Another former employee, Tabatha Moultry, 39, worked on SMART's assembly line for several years through 2019. Moultry said the plant had high turnover and increasingly relied on migrant workers to keep up with intense production demands. She said she remembered working with one migrant girl who "looked 11 or 12 years old."
The girl would come to work with her mother, Moultry said. When Moultry asked her real age, the girl said she was 13. "She was way too young to be working in that plant, or any plant," Moultry said.
When asked for comment, a Hyundai representative provided an official statement to The Drive: "Hyundai does not tolerate illegal employment practices in any Hyundai entity. We have policies and procedures in place that require compliance with all local, state, and federal laws."
Labor recruiters as well as current and former employees at the plant told Reuters that many of the minors found employment at Smart through recruitment agencies. While there are staffing agencies that are above-board, critics say that hiring through these agencies can be a workaround to shift blame onto the agency when it comes to determining whether an employee is eligible to work.
Reuters' journalists first learned of Smart's underage workers following the disappearance of a 14-year-old Guatemalan migrant child from her family's home in Enterprise, Alabama. After discovering that the girl and her two brothers had been working at the plant, local police in Enterprise turned over the case to the state attorney general to investigate possible labor-law violations. A spokesperson for the Alabama attorney general's office declined to comment on the matter to Reuters.
Smart declined to address any of Reuters' specific stories, saying it "denies any allegation that it knowingly employed anyone who is ineligible for employment." While it acknowledged the use of temporary work agencies to fill openings at the factory, the Smart representative told Reuters that the company "these agencies to follow the law in recruiting, hiring, and placing workers on its premises."
Hyundai is one of the world's most profitable automakers with plans to expand further in the United States, starting with a $5.5 billion plant in Georgia focused on EVs.
"Consumers should be outraged," former Occupational Safety and Health Administration secretary of labor David Michaels told Reuters. "They should know that these cars are being built, at least in part, by workers who are children and need to be in school rather than risking life and limb because their families are desperate for income."
You can read Reuters' full report here.
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