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Behind the investigative report on child labor allegations at Hyundai Alabama plant

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to tell you about a shocking new report from the news agency Reuters, that kids as young as 12 and 13 have been hired to work at an auto parts plant in Alabama at a place called Smart Alabama LLC, a metal-stamping shop that is majority owned by Hyundai, the Korean automaker. According to the Reuters report, which was documented by local police, current employees and family members of some of the youngsters, the plant has employed as many as 50 underage workers to work all shifts at the metal shop, which supplies parts for the vehicles assembled at Hyundai's flagship U.S. plant in Montgomery, Ala. Many are children of migrants from Central and South America. The Reuters review of the records noted that the plant has been cited for repeated health and safety violations, including amputation hazards.

Mica Rosenberg was part of the reporting team that broke the story, and she's here with us now to tell us more. And I do want to mention that we've sought comment ourselves from the relevant parties. We'll tell you what they said or didn't say as we go forward. Mica Rosenberg, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

MICA ROSENBERG: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Before we jump into the specifics, would you mind just telling us, how did you learn about this? And I'm asking because manufacturing plants are notoriously difficult to get access to by people who don't work there. And I do want to mention that your kind of regular beat is immigration. So can you just tell us a little bit about how you and your team found out about this?

ROSENBERG: Earlier this year, My reporting partners, Christina Cook and Joshua Schneier, and I, we published a story about a Guatemalan teenager, who shortly arriving to the United States last year, got a job in a chicken processing plant, which is a very big industry in the area of Enterprise, Ala., where our reporting focused. And, you know, clearly these chicken plants can be pretty hazardous places to work. So, you know, through that reporting, we found out it's relatively easy in some cases to get documents, you know, where if you're a minor, you could basically, you know, pick an age and say that you were older.

So these workers can be very vulnerable to exploitation because they're working without authorization, and, you know, they're often very hesitant to speak up. But once we published that story, we started hearing about kids also in Enterprise, Ala., who were working in a nearby auto manufacturer that is about an hour away. This Smart Alabama plant is in Laverne, which is 40 miles from Enterprise. And we were hearing that some of them were much younger ages than the teenagers that we had written about before. So obviously that caught our attention.

MARTIN: Can you just tell us a little bit about how the hiring worked so that a 12- or 13-year-old could get hired to work at a manufacturing plant like this? I mean, I think people would see if an older teenager, somebody 17 or 18 or 19, was not honest about, you know, his or her age. But I think 12 or 13, I think - I don't know. I don't know too many 12- or 13-year-olds who look like they're old enough to work in manufacturing. So I'm just - so how did it work?

ROSENBERG: Yeah. Well, you know, for a lot of local migrants in the area who might not have legal work documents, we've learned that they often find jobs through various staffing agencies. And from speaking to labor experts and workers themselves, we know that these staffing agencies can often have their own lax hiring practices. They often make - you know, sometimes will make minimal checks when hiring. Labor experts said that while these staffing firms are very common throughout the U.S. and in many different industries, sometimes companies can kind of use them as a buffer if there's, you know, unsavory hiring practices, and they can say they didn't know what was going on because the workers came from staffing firms. But we did speak to former workers who were working alongside some of these younger minors and told us that there was no way that they looked old enough to work, even if they might not, you know, admit their age when they're on the line.

MARTIN: So according to your reporting, local law enforcement can't investigate the alleged use of child labor and referred this matter to state officials. So NPR News reached out to the U.S. attorney in Alabama's southern district, as well as the Alabama attorney general's office. They did not have any comment to us. Have you learned if any law enforcement agency has been investigating this matter and have any been in contact with you since you published your story? I do want to mention one interesting detail, as you said, that part of this came to the attention of local law enforcement because one of the kids ran away from home. And in the course of investigating that, that is part of this story. So has any law enforcement reached out to you at the course of this, or do you know if any law enforcement body is investigating this?

ROSENBERG: Well, you know, that's right. So through - you know, through our reporting on this, we found out about this 13-year-old Guatemalan girl who had gone missing from her home in February. And that set off a statewide Amber Alert for missing children, saying that she was with - suspected to be with an adult man. And it ended up that the police located the two of them on the very same day that she disappeared, and they had actually crossed state lines to Georgia. The man was also from Guatemala. He was later arrested and deported.

But when we got the police records of the incident, we heard on the calls that the police, the Alabama and Georgia police were talking back and forth and saying that the two were co-workers. And you can hear in the calls that even the police officers sounded surprised that she was so young and working. And so that's - you know, as we continue to report, we found out that she was working at Smart in Laverne and, you know, that she was not the only one who was working there.

So we spoke to local police who did say that they - when they found out about that she and her brothers, who were 12 and 15, were working there, that they referred the matter to - the state attorney general's office declined to comment to us. But after our story came out, the Alabama state department of labor said that they would investigate the issue and that they hadn't been aware of it previously before our reporting and that they were coordinating with other agencies like the U.S. Department of Labor to look into that.

MARTIN: So to your knowledge, are any children working there now?

ROSENBERG: Well, we were not able to confirm if there are currently children working there. Our reporting was focused on, you know, current and former workers who had seen this girl and others there in the past, and we had heard about the dismissals. So that is something that we were not able to confirm.

MARTIN: Well, let me just tell you what Hyundai said. We reached out to Hyundai. They said that Hyundai does not tolerate illegal employment practices in any Hyundai entity. We have policies and procedures in place that require compliance with all local, state and federal laws. I assume they said the same thing to you when you talked to them.

ROSENBERG: Yes, they did. Yeah, they did say the exact same thing to us. They initially didn't comment when the story came out. Smart did comment and said essentially the same thing. And then after the story published, Hyundai sent us a very similar statement, and they did not answer our very detailed questions about the reporting beyond that.

MARTIN: And we also reached out to Smart Alabama LLC. They did not respond to our inquiry at all. And as I mentioned earlier, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama did not respond to our query, nor did the Alabama attorney general's office. The Alabama attorneys general's office only responded to tell us to say they did not have a comment. So that being said, before we let you go, what response have you gotten to the story?

ROSENBERG: So we've gotten a lot of, you know, different kinds of responses. Obviously, there's a lot of concern, you know, outrage that this could be happening in the United States, but, you know, also concern for the workers. I mean, obviously, these migrant workers are trying to make a living for themselves and for their families. You know, there's a lot of difficulties that they face. So that's part of the response that we've been getting, too, is concern for them.

MARTIN: That was Mica Rosenberg. She's an immigration reporter with Reuters who, along with her colleagues, broke the story on the use of child labor by Hyundai and its subsidiary parts-maker in southern Alabama. You can see their article online now at the Reuters news site. Mica Rosenberg, thanks so much for joining us.

ROSENBERG: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.