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Wake-up call

Blood, guts and kids


"It's never too soon to jump-start your resume.” Your first job can be the start of something big. Attitude is everything. There is dignity in a hard day's work and any job is a good job if you can get it. Do it right and you'll become a valued member of society and be ready to take on the world.

That could have been the recruiting pep-talk for Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI), raiding the market for 13-year-old kids to work the graveyard shift as "skull-splitters" (now there's a hell of a job title) at one of their slaughterhouses and meat-packing facilities. 

They've got an empire of them.

A prized acquisition of Blackstone Group, the biggest alternative investment manager this side of the planet Jupiter, PSSI hired kids to handle caustic chemicals, use crude saws for dismemberment, and to mop the bloody viscera and entrails from sentient beings all around them.

"Idle hands are the devil's playthings.”

When exposed in a CBS "60 Minutes" segment, the Blackstone CEO mega-billionaire Stephen Schwarzman feigned shock and vowed a "remediation" plan of 13 steps. He may have picked "13" in  defiance of that number's associations with bad luck.

It's also the number of steps that historically lead up to the hangman's scaffold. 

He also implemented the golden rule of hierarchical accountability by firing supervisors who were cogs in the wheel of corporate policy. For public consumption and several years, the boss of all bosses had to be in denial, but if he didn't know what he knew, he should have known.

Due diligence is for the little people.

In a strategic act of calculated public penance and as a distraction from his outed business model, he created a charitable fund for kids. An act of concealment, as dogs deposit at the curb. Schwarzman's total compensation and dividends last year was more than $1.27 billion. Just sayin'.

After a long  investigation requiring the execution of search warrants, the U.S. Labor Department finally concluded "There was no way this was just a mistake, a clerical error, a handful of rogue individuals getting through.”

The department noted: "Our investigation found Packers Sanitation Services systems flagged some young workers as minors, but the company ignored the flags. When the Wage and Hour Division arrived with warrants, the adults — who had recruited, hired and supervised these children — tried to derail our efforts to investigate their employment practices.”

At plants in Nebraska and Minnesota, at least, managers "attempted to obstruct employee interviews" and according to Fortune.com, "Investigators said they also saw managers deleting WhatsApp messages and computer files.”

Fear not: a corporate "chief ethics and compliance officer" was on the case with his nose to the grindstone and perhaps elsewhere.

PSSI, with hyperbolic irony, acclaims itself as a "leading provider of food safety solutions.” Taking  that self-promotion down a peg, Michael Lazzeri, a Labor Department regional administrator, said "Taking advantage of children, exposing them to workplace dangers-and interfering with a federal investigation-demonstrates Packers Sanitation Services Inc.'s flagrant disregard for the law and for the well-being of young workers.”

If I were an on-duty company propagandist, I'd have kept a straight face, tried not to give myself away, swallowed my convictions with a lump in my throat, and as a corporate trooper said something like, "We all make mistakes. As honorable people, we must in good faith try to correct them when they come to our attention and  do all in our power to prevent them from happening again.”

That's pretty much the mock-righteous approach taken by PSSI Vice President of Marketing Gina Swenson as she strung together some bullet-points emphatically denouncing the exploitation of children.

PSSI employed over 100 children across 13 meat-packing plants in eight states. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, they were fined the maximum allowed by law: $15,138 per child. 

Those levied dollars are to the company the equivalent of a grain of sand on the beaches of Bora Bora.

According to Kate Bronfenbrenner, of Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, "PSSI paid investors a $297 million dividend in 2020, which dwarfs the amount of its $1.5 million fine". But in terms of the inevitable post-traumatic stress these kids will suffer, there will be hell to pay.

A few years ago, PSSI paid about a half-billion dollars in dividends over 17 months to Blackstone Group, whereupon the hydra-headed conglomerate refinanced its debt. The rest is chronicled infamy. But what a story!

Blackstone is a private equity group with "equity" used strictly as an economic term. The Financial Times estimates its assets at $951 billion. 

Schwarzman’s net worth is around $30 billion, estimates Fortune.com.

But what is a man really worth whose company, under his watch, winked as kids toiled at his facilities with, according to an investigation cited by the Financial Times, "limited visibility and extreme mechanical noise … while standing in a mixture of soapy water and floating meat parts"?

In March, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, sole trustee of the New York State Common Retirement Fund, which invests copiously in Blackstone funds, demanded from the CEO, chief operation officer and senior managing director and global head of private equity, a clear and specific accounting of how they will ensure a permanent cessation of Blackstone's "improper dependence on child labor.”

I don't know what their response was, but probably it was shrouded in legalisms, parries and promises of rainbows.

The abuse of children in workplaces is, even today, a phenomenon not limited to Blackstone. Naturally it is caused in part by unscrupulous, rogue plutocrats, but it is enabled as well by national immigration policy.

At least some of the children reside with unvetted families with whom they were placed by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Refugee Resettlement, and are under the gun, perhaps not only metaphorically, to remit payment to smugglers who facilitated their entry. 

They may owe a debt of gratitude to their new nation whose streets are paved with gold, but they have other inarguable and less fanciful debts to pay or else.  

Fake IDs and Social Security numbers are a cinch to get, and the DHS's E-Verify system is totally dysfunctional. Some employers like it that way for obvious reasons.

"Multiple felonies are committed on every step of the journey from the border to the slaughterhouse. Corrupt government and private sector employers hold the upper hand. Fines are meaningless. Hard jail time might make a difference. If Congress can't pass a mandatory e-verify system, it's unlikely to put weight behind throwing the donor class behind bars,” opined The Jamestown Press.

The Daily Mail found that "Federal investigators recorded a massive 37 percent jump in the number of kids working illegally in America's factories, eateries and other workplaces this past year.”

Kids working as shoeshine boys, newspaper hawkers ("Read all about it!”) and lemonade stand proprietors are vintage images of the past. But historically, many children were maimed or killed in factories and underground mines well into the 20th century.

The formation of the National Child Labor Committee in 1904 began to shed some light on the outrage, but the bulb from that light did not illuminate all political corridors. Were it not for the desperate job shortage for adults during the Great Depression, the maltreatment of children in workplaces would still be ongoing.

In the area of agriculture, it still is, to an extent. Federal law is so flexible and lenient in authorizing minor-aged workers in the fields, that in some cases, nothing more than parental consent is required.

Most people remember their first love and their first job. Mine was at a Midtown shirt company that hired me after I playfully put on a fake English accent at an interview, after having flopped at prior interviews. When I joined colleagues on a trip to the company's factory in the Deep South, we were warned "Don't talk religion or politics!"

I kept my word throughout the visit, but after I downed a few Harvey Wallbangers, everyone wanted to know why I lost my accent. 

What will the slaughterhouse kids have to reminisce about?


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