The news agency said it learned about underage workers after the brief disappearance of a young girl in Alabama. Police in the city of Enterprise, who helped find the girl, told Reuters that she and her two siblings had worked at SMART. The girl and her brothers did not attend school, Reuters reported, and had worked at the facility earlier this year. SMART denies knowingly employing minors.
The Alabama Department of Labor is now coordinating with other agencies, including the U.S. Department of Labor, to begin investigating the matter, a spokesperson for the state agency told The Washington Post in an email Friday.
Alabama law prevents minors under 16 from working in a manufacturing environment, she said, adding that regardless of which entity paid the minor, the presence of the minor alone is all that is needed to establish employment. “They were at the SMART plant, they are a SMART employee as far as the Alabama Child Labor Law is concerned,” said Tara Hutchison, state spokeswoman.
The girl turns 14 this month, and her brothers are 12 and 15.
Federal employees 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 “rejects any allegation that it knowingly employed anyone ineligible for employment” under local state and federal laws. In a statement to The Post, Sport said the company relies on temp agencies to fill open positions, and if it learns workers are ineligible for employment, they are immediately removed from the premises.
In a Friday statement, Hyundai told The Post that it does not condone illegal hiring practices. “We have policies and procedures in place that require compliance with all local, state and federal laws.”
Police in the town of Enterprise, where the girl’s family lives, do not have jurisdiction in labor court cases and referred the case to the 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 upcoming school term.
The children were among a larger group of underage workers who found jobs at the Hyundai-owned supplier in recent years, Reuters reported, citing interviews with a dozen former and current factory employees and labor recruiters. Several of those minors, they said, have dropped out of school to work long shifts at the facility, a sprawling facility with a documented history of health and safety violations, including amputation hazards.
Hyundai is one of the most profitable car manufacturers in the world, registering almost $90 billion in revenue last year.