Tennessee company fined $300,000 for hiring kids to run heavy machinery

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A Tennessee manufacturer was fined nearly $300,000 for employing minors to operate dangerous equipment, the Labor Department announced Monday.

Tuff Torq Corp., which makes outdoor power-equipment components for such brands as John Deere, Toro and Yamaha, also must set aside $1.5 million in profits for the 10 children it employed, according to a consent judgment entered in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee. Children as young as 14 were subject to “oppressive child labor,” an agency spokesman said.

“Our work will help prevent the next death or injury by ensuring Tuff Torq takes immediate and significant steps to stop the illegal employment of children,” Jessica Looman, wage and hour division administrator at the Labor Department, said in a statement.

A spokesman for Yanmar USA, the parent company of Tuff Torq, confirmed the child labor violations in an email. Ryan Pott, director of compliance and external affairs, said the employees in question were temporary workers placed by a staffing agency. An investigation revealed that those workers had used fake names and credentials when applying with the staffing agency, Pott said.

The company is working to strengthen its in-house protocols and clarify expectations with suppliers, he said. “Tuff Torq is dedicated to ensuring that their products and services are produced under ethical conditions, with a strong emphasis on fair labor practices, and Tuff Torq is further strengthening our relevant training and compliance programs.”

Labor Department spokesman Jake Andrejat said there is a separate ongoing investigation into the staffing agency, which he declined to name due to the ongoing nature of the matter.

The $296,951 fine comes amid a wave of child labor violations across the country, with citations reaching levels not seen in nearly two decades. For the year ended Sept. 30, 2023, the federal government recorded 5,792 minors working in violation of child labor laws. The rising numbers are being driven, in part, by a historically tight labor market that has led to shortages across several industries, as well as an immigration surge that has brought hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied minors into the United States.

In December 2022, a Reuters investigation chronicled the extensive, illegal use of child workers by at least four major suppliers of Hyundai and Kia factories in Alabama. Many of those workers had been placed through a third-party staffing agency, the report said. Both companies told Reuters they are reviewing hiring practices used by their suppliers.

The Tuff Torq fines stem from a Labor Department investigation that began last year. During a tour of its facilities in January, federal investigators observed a child operating a “power-driven hoisting apparatus,” according to the legal documents.

They objected to the shipment of goods out of the Morristown facility, citing the “hot goods” provision of federal labor law, which disallows the sale of goods produced with illegal labor.

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