The Hyundai supplier SMART Alabama LLC is facing scrutiny and backlash following a report from Reuters that several children, perhaps as young as 12, had been employed at the plant as recently as earlier this year.
Many first became suspicious of the hiring practices at SMART back in February when a young migrant girl from Guatemala, not yet 14 years old, went missing from her home in Enterprise, Alabama. During investigations into her disappearance, police discovered that she and her brothers, ages 12 and 15, had been working at the plant rather than attending school. Their father Pedro Tzi also confirmed to Reuters that his kids once worked at SMART.
After this information became public, Reuters contacted other SMART employees and members of the community to corroborate the stories regarding the Tzi children and to find out whether SMART had employed other underage children to work at the facility. Several of the employees confirmed that minors had been in the SMART workforce, though none could say for certain how many. Their estimates range anywhere from 12 to 50.
Though most employees interviewed by Reuters insisted on remaining anonymous, one employee, Tabatha Moultry, 39, spoke on the record and claimed that one girl who used to work at the plant “looked 11 or 12 years old.”
Both SMART and Hyundai have vehemently denied the allegations.
Hyundai “does not tolerate illegal employment practices at any Hyundai entity,” the company said in a statement. “We have policies and procedures in place that require compliance with all local, state and federal laws.”
In a separate statement, SMART said it “denies any allegation that it knowingly employed anyone who is ineligible for employment.”
Though the Alabama attorney general has not commented on the reports, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration David Michaels is furious at the possibility of child labor violations, especially at a plant which poses considerable safety risks to adults, let alone children.
“Consumers should be outraged,” he said. “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.”
The young Tzi girl, whom Reuters did not name because of her age, was eventually found safe and returned to her family. All three Tzi children have now been enrolled at school for the fall.