The U.S. Department of Labor levied fines totaling more than $36,000 against eight growers in Michigan for violations of migrant housing and child labor laws — including an allegation of a 6-year-old picking blueberries — and retailers have already discontinued doing business with some of the companies.
The fines resulted from a U.S. Department of Labor investigation into 35 agricultural employers in eight Michigan counties — Berrien, Cass, Kent, Newaygo, Ottawa, Oceana, Muskegon and Van Buren — according to a news release from the Department of Labor’s Office of Public Affairs.
Two blueberry growers, Adkin Blue Ribbon Packing Co., South Haven, and Jawor Bros., Ravenna, were assessed penalties of $2,584 for child labor violations after the investigation allegedly found children under 12, including a six-year-old, picking in the fields.
Tony Marr, general manager for Adkin Blue Ribbon, said his company is investigating what happened. He said the company has strict policies in place with regard to labor laws, and it’s trying to figure out where and how they broke down.
“The school here for migrant farm workers’ kids closed for a week because of swine flu,” Marr said. “And, we had our funding cut a couple years ago for kids’ daycare. Growers everywhere are saddled with trying to keep kids out of fields.”
Marr said today’s economy and labor market ensures that adequate, legal labor is available.
“We can hire as many adult workers as we need,” he said. “We don’t need to hire children.”
Marr said three major retail customers — Wal-Mart, Meijers and Kroger —suspended business with Adkin pending investigation.
“We hope to resolve those issues,” Marr said.
ABC News was scheduled to air a report on the alleged violations at Adkin Oct. 30, which prompted an official response from United Fresh Produce Association president and chief executive officer Tom Stenzel, who encouraged members to redouble efforts to ensure no children are working on farms.
“I know you all have policies against illegal child labor, but it is our responsibility to make sure policies don’t just sit in a binder somewhere but are being enforced every day,” Stenzel said in his statement.
Poor housing conditions resulted in fines totaling $33,550 for seven fruit and vegetable growers, including another $4,600 fine for Adkin Blue Ribbon. Other growers found in violation of the Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act housing provisions were: Froehlich Farms, Berrien Center; Schaenfeld Farms, Sodus; Tony Brush Farm, South Haven; Sherer Fruit Farms, Bloomingdale; Berrybrook Enterprises, Dowagiac; and William Bouwcamp, Solon Township.
In the release, James Smith, district director of the department’s Wage and Hour Division in Detroit, called the violations “intolerable and disappointing.
“Among the violations we cited were workers living in unlicensed labor camps with sewage from a faulty septic system seeping up in close proximity to living units, untreated waste water spilling out of broken pipes, no hot water for hand washing and infestation by insects and rodents,” Smith said in the release.
According to Office of Public Affairs spokesman Brad Mitchell, each of the companies cited for violations have 30 days to request a hearing with the district director, in this case, Smith. If they’re still not satisfied, Mitchell said they can file an appeal to an administrative law judge. The final step would be to file an appeal in a federal appeals court.
Mitchell said Adkin and Berrybrook had requested hearings on the housing violations.