At least two minors had been working in “oppressive” conditions, deboning raw poultry with sharp knives at a poultry processing plant in Irwindale, the U.S. Department of Labor alleged in a lawsuit filed Saturday. 

The department also alleged the owner of the processing plant, Fu Qian Chen Lu — and owners of two other associated companies  —  illegally shipped poultry products that had been handled by children workers, violating the “hot goods” provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act. That provision prohibits companies from shipping products that come from locations where government investigators observed child labor in the prior 30 days. 

“Instead of being in school, children younger than 18 years old stand on their feet all day in a chilled cutting room surrounded by raw chicken, using knives they must constantly sharpen, to cut and debone chicken,” attorneys for the labor department wrote in court documents. 

The lawsuit says Chen Lu also prevented department investigators from accessing information they needed to determine if the company violated labor laws, according to the lawsuit.

On Monday a federal judge in Los Angeles issued a temporary restraining order against the defendants and their companies, ordering them to stop using child labor, to not ship any products from facilities accused of using child labor, and to provide requested information to the labor department. 

Dueling child labor allegations

A lawyer representing Chen Lu and the other defendants accused the labor department of planting an under-aged worker in the facilities. The labor department denies this. 

Gregory Patterson, an LA-area attorney, said the labor department has demanded a multimillion-dollar “posting amount” without any meaningful evidence that workers weren’t paid full wages.

He told CalMatters in an email that the labor department had a worker younger than 18 hired at Moon Poultry using false identification in late January, as a part of the investigation. 

“The (labor department) then directed this person to work in a hazardous area of the Moon Poultry facility in Irwindale,” Patterson wrote. “The (department) has cynically used the child labor allegation — which it manufactured — to strengthen its negotiating hand and attempt to force us into an early settlement of the overtime claims.”

He said the labor department “is likely to be a defendant before this is over.”

A labor department attorney said its staff did not place an underaged employee in the poultry plants or direct them to work in a dangerous job. 

“The defense counsel’s allegations are false. The Labor Department has previously responded to the defense counsel on this issue, but he has nevertheless chosen to press his baseless claims,” said Marc Pilotin, regional solicitor for the labor department.

Search warrants and interviews

Investigators discovered children working at the poultry processing plant on March 20 when they served a search warrant against Chen Lu’s company, Moon Poultry, according to the lawsuit. 

The labor department said minors have worked at the Irwindale facility since at least October, and investigators identified two of the minors working as chicken deboners in the last two months. One was identified during the March 20 search  and the other was found before then using Moon Poultry’s payroll records, according to court documents.

The labor department said it notified Chen Lu of the child labor violations and that products handled by the minors were considered “hot goods” that cannot be  shipped. Chen Lu agreed verbally and in a written statement that he would not ship the hot goods, but he did so anyway, the department said. 

Chen Lu manages two other companies, L&Y Food, Inc. and JRC Culinary Group, which frequently receive poultry shipments from Moon Poultry, according to the labor department. Both companies and their owners, Bruce Shu Hua Lok and Ryan Zhong Lu are listed as defendants in the lawsuit. Zhong Lu is Chen Lu’s 18-year-old son. 

The labor department’s investigators “discovered that 794 boxes of processed chicken and seven 1,500-pound bins of chicken had been removed from the Irwindale facility,” court documents state. 

“Our primary concern is stopping the employment of kids doing dangerous things.”MICHAEL EASTWOOD, AN ENFORCEMENT DIRECTOR FOR THE US LABOR DEPARTMENT

Investigators visited L&Y and found that some of the goods had been shipped there. Before they could investigate further, Chen Lu arrived at the facility and refused to give them access to L&Y’s poultry inventory or answer any questions about the goods, according to court documents. 

Later investigators discovered all the hot goods had been removed from the processing plant, the lawsuit states. 

Rather than disclosing to investigators whether it was continuing to produce and ship goods and where, Moon Poultry indicated that it would shut down, court documents say. 

When investigators visited the Irwindale plant again on March 27 they found it had shut down, according to court documents.

Because the investigation is ongoing, the labor department officials said they would not answer questions about details of the investigation and some of the conditions the child workers faced. 

Other enforcement actions

Michael Eastwood, director of enforcement in the labor department’s wage and hour division’s western region, said when investigators execute a search warrant, they usually conduct confidential interviews with employees and review business records. Employees are told why investigators are there and that they don’t ask employees about their immigration status.  

In late January, labor department investigators also executed a search warrant at several other processing plants in El Monte and Monterey Park owned by at least one company listed as a defendant in the lawsuit, said Chanchanit Martorell, head of the Thai Community Development Center, a community nonprofit. 

The center, along with the Los Angeles County Office of Immigrant Affairs, an attorney with Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and other nonprofit partners, spoke with workers outside the plants in January and offered public services and legal support if they needed it, she said. 

The labor department lawsuit asks a judge to order the defendants to give up all profits earned from child labor and pay additional civil penalties arising from labor law violations. 

“Our primary concern is stopping the employment of kids doing dangerous things,” Eastwood said. 

The actions follow a December judgment against another L.A.-area poultry processing company, The Exclusive Poultry Inc. The labor department ordered its owner and associated front companies to pay almost $3.8 million in back wages, damages and penalties. 

The department says there’s been a nationwide surge in child labor in recent years. It has pressed at least 34 child labor cases in California as of December, involving 103 children employed in violation of labor laws.

This article was first published by CalMatters. You can read the original article here.

Leave a comment