A Mississippi poultry plant is the subject of several federal investigations after a 16-year-old boy died on the job.
The boy, identified as Duvan Tomas Perez, died Friday night at the Mar-Jac Poultry processing plant in Hattiesburg, Mississippi after he was ensnared in a machine he had been cleaning.
It is a violation of child labor law for workers under the age of 18 to be employed at poultry plants, as the U.S. Labor Department defines such industries as “particularly hazardous.”
Perez immigrated to the United States from Guatemala in 2017, and had been a student at N.R. Burger Middle School in Hattiesburg, according to Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity, a nonprofit supporting migrants in Mississippi. A relative told NBC that he “was generous, smiley, and very fun, and very responsible at work.”
In a statement, Mar-Jac called the death a “tragedy” and acknowledged that Perez “should not have been hired,” but maintained that they were unaware of his age. They claimed that due to an “unprecedentedly tight labor market,” they have been relying on an outside staffing company to fill positions.
“It appears, at this point in the investigation, that this individual’s age and identity were misrepresented on the paperwork,” the plant said, adding that they will be auditing the companies to ensure that this “error never happens again.”
Statistics from the Department of Labor reveal that child labor violation cases increased over 50 percent between 2015 and 2022. Several Republican states, including Arkansas, Iowa, and Ohio, have sought to rollback child labor protections to meet labor demands.
The Biden Administration previously said it would be working to address child labor violations, particularly among migrant children. Children in immigrant families will sometimes join the workforce with their parents instead of attending school in order to support themselves.
Following the death of Perez, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Wage and Hour Division have each opened an investigation into Mar-Jac Poultry. The Hattiesburg Police Department has also said it is investigating the cause of death.
According to IAJE, this is not the first workplace injury to occur at Mar-Jac. Workers have notified the nonprofit several times about the faulty equipment at the plant, and in 2020, a 33-year-old employee died from injuries they sustained in the facility's battery charging room.
OSHA records reveal that in 2021, a Mar-Jac employee was killed after he was pinned "partially under" a machine that caught his sleeve. OSHA fined Mar-Jac $27,306, but the company contested the fine. The case remains ongoing.
“This is not new, and now we’re having children being subjected to these conditions,” said IAJE president Lorena Quiroz.