The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hyundai subsidiary in Alabama focus of child labor investigation

State labor regulators opened an inquiry after a Reuters report found that children as young as 12 were put to work at the SMART metal stamping factory in Luverne

A sign advertising jobs stands near the SMART Alabama auto parts plant and Hyundai Motor Co. subsidiary in Luverne, Ala., on July 14. (Joshua Schneyer/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

State regulators opened an investigation Friday following news reports that a Hyundai subsidiary in Alabama used child labor at its metal stamping plant.

In some cases, Reuters reported Friday, children as young as 12 were put to work at the SMART Alabama factory in Luverne, which supplies parts for the South Korean automaker’s flagship U.S. assembly plant in nearby Montgomery.

The news outlet said it learned of underage workers following the brief disappearance of a young girl in Alabama. Police in the town of Enterprise, who helped locate the girl, told Reuters that she and her two siblings had worked at SMART. The girl and her brothers were not attending school, Reuters reported, and had worked at the plant earlier this year. SMART denies knowingly employing minors.

The Alabama Department of Labor is now coordinating with other agencies, including the U.S. Labor Department, to begin investigating the matter, a spokesperson for the state agency told The Washington Post in an email Friday.

Alabama law bars minors younger than 16 from working in a manufacturing environment, she said, adding that regardless of what entity was paying the minor, the presence of the underage person alone is all that is needed to establish employment. “They were at the SMART factory, they are a SMART employee as far as Alabama Child Labor Law is concerned,” said Tara Hutchison, the state spokesperson.

The girl turns 14 this month, and her brothers are 12 and 15.

Federal labor officials told The Post that the agency is aware of the Reuters report but could not comment on any open investigation or pending action.

Gary Sport, general manager of business administration at SMART, said the company “denies any allegation that it knowingly employed anyone who is ineligible for employment” under local state and federal laws. In a statement to The Post, Sport said the company relies on temporary employment agencies to fill open positions and if it learns that workers are not eligible for employment, they are immediately removed from the premises.

In a Friday statement, Hyundai told The Post that it does not tolerate illegal employment practices. “We have policies and procedures in place that require compliance with all local, state, and federal laws.”

Police in the town Enterprise, where the girl’s family lives, do not have jurisdiction in labor law cases and forwarded the matter to the state attorney general’s office, Reuters reported. Neither entity responded to requests for comment.

Reuters said the children’s father, Pedro Tzi, confirmed the account and that all three are now enrolled for the coming school term.

The children were among a larger cohort of underage workers who found jobs at the Hyundai-owned supplier over the past few years, Reuters reported, citing interviews with a dozen former and current plant employees and labor recruiters. Several of these minors, they said, have forgone schooling to work long shifts at the plant, a sprawling facility with a documented history of health and safety violations, including amputation hazards.

Hyundai is one of the most profitable automakers in the world, recording nearly $90 billion in revenue last year.

Loading...