A supplier majority owned by Hyundai has been accused of employing child labor in an Alabama plant responsible for supplying stamped metal parts to Hyundai’s assembly line in nearby Montgomery, according to foreign media reports.
Local police say the youngest of the underage employees at the Hyundai supplier’s plant was 12 years old, and that they had recently worked at the plant operated by SMART. SMART is listed in company documents as a subsidiary of Hyundai that supplies stamped metal parts and welded subassemblies for the automaker’s cars and SUVs built in Montgomery. Hyundai did not respond to requests for comment.
SMART said in a statement that the company follows federal, state and local laws and denies any allegations that it knowingly hires people who are not qualified for employment. The company said it relies on temporary work agencies to fill job openings and expects “these agencies to comply with the law when recruiting, hiring and placing workers on their premises.
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After a Guatemalan migrant child briefly disappeared from her Alabama home in February, foreign media learned that the supplier employed underage workers. The girl, who turned 14 earlier this month, and her two brothers, ages 12 and 15, had both gone to work at the plant earlier this year and did not attend school, according to sources familiar with the matter. Their father, Pedro Tzi, confirmed the account in an interview.
Local police also confirmed that the three minors had worked at SMART. The police who helped find the missing girl released her name in a public alert during the search. Local police do not have the authority to investigate labor law violations at the plant, but they have notified the governor’s office following the incident.
Police also conducted a search for a 21-year-old suspect named Alvaro Cucul, who is also a Guatemalan immigrant and worked at the SMART plant, and whom the missing girl’s father believes his daughter may have been with. Police used cell phone geolocation data to locate Cucul and the missing girl. The girl told officers that Cucul was her friend and that they had gone looking for a job opportunity together that day. Cucul was arrested and later deported, sources close to the case said.
SMART fired some of its underage workers after the disappearances drew local news coverage, according to two former employees and other locals familiar with the plant. The sources said the police attention has led them to fear that authorities may soon crack down on other hiring of underage workers.
The missing girl’s father had also previously worked at the SMART plant. He said he was sorry that his child chose to go to work. He said the family is trying to get back to the life they had before. It’s all over,” he said. The children are no longer working and they will be back in school this fall.”
Mike Lewis, a spokesman for the Alabama attorney general’s office, declined to comment. It was not immediately clear whether the office or other investigators had contacted SMART or Hyundai about possible violations.
More than a dozen former and current employees at the plant, as well as labor recruiters, said in interviews that three minors were being prepared for re-entry. In addition to the three, more minors have been offered jobs with the supplier in the past few years.
Some of these minors, they said, had given up their education in order to work long shifts at the plant. The plant has a history of previous health and production safety violations, including resulting in amputations of workers’ limbs. Foreign Press was unable to determine the exact number of children who may have worked at the SMART plant, as well as the wages or other conditions of employment for these minors.
The exposure of child labor in Hyundai’s U.S. supply chain could spark consumer and regulatory concerns and investigations and lead to reputational damage for the company. In a “Human Rights Policy” posted on its website, Hyundai states that the company prohibits child labor in its workforce, including suppliers.
Consumers should be outraged by this,” said David Michaels, former OSHA deputy labor secretary. They should know that at least some of these cars are made by child laborers who are children and need to go to school, not risk their lives to work because their families are desperate for income.”
Hyundai says the SMART plant makes parts for the Elantra, Sonata and Santa Fe, which accounted for nearly 37 percent of Hyundai’s U.S. sales as of June. Federal records show the plant has been cited repeatedly by OSHA for health and safety violations. SMART has received at least $48,515 in OSHA penalties since 2013, with the most recent fine coming this year, records show.
The plant’s website says it has the capacity to supply parts for up to 400,000 vehicles a year, but also has had difficulty retaining workers to meet Hyundai’s demand. in late 2020, SMART wrote a letter to U.S. consular officials in Mexico to request a visa for a Mexican worker. The letter, written by SMART General Manager Gary Spor, said the plant was “severely short of labor” and that Hyundai “will not tolerate this deficiency.
Earlier this year, lawyers filed a class action lawsuit against SMART and several staffing firms that helped provide U.S. visas. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of about 40 Mexican workers, alleges that some employees hired as engineers were ordered to perform menial jobs, and SMART called the allegations in the lawsuit “baseless” and “without merit” in court documents.
According to current and former SMART workers and local labor recruiters, many of the plant’s underage employees were hired through recruitment agencies. One former SMART employee revealed that there had been approximately 50 underage employees on various shifts at the plant, and he claimed to have known some of these underage employees. Another former employee stated that she had worked with about a dozen minors on her own shift.
Another former employee, Tabatha Moultry, 39, worked on SMART’s assembly line for several years until 2019. Moultry said the plant had a high turnover rate and relied heavily on immigrant workers to meet tight production demands. She said she remembers working with an immigrant girl who “looked like she was 11 or 12 years old. The girl came to work with her mother, and when Moultry asked her age, she replied “13 years old.