Reuters just published a jaw-dropping report alleging — with some pretty compelling evidence — that SMART Alabama, a metal stamping facility that supplies Hyundai’s flagship assembly line in Montgomery, has been using child laborers as young as 12 years old from migrant families. SMART Alabama is majority-owned by Hyundai, and provides parts for Elantra, Sonata and Santa Fe models assembled in the U.S.
The Reuters report paints a chilling picture of migrant children working long shifts at the plant instead of attending school. The SMART plant, in Luverne, AL, has “a documented history of health and safety violations, including amputation hazards,” Reuters reports, noting that the factory has been hit with nearly $50,000 in violations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The Reuters report cites area police, former and current employees of SMART, and the family of three children alleged to have worked in the plant, all of whom confirm the allegations of child labor violations.
SMART claims to have the capacity to supply parts for up to 400,000 vehicles every year, but as of 2020, Reuters writes, the company claimed to be “severely lacking in labor” in a letter it sent to U.S. consular officials in Mexico seeking a visa for a Mexican worker.
Reuters reporters first discovered the alleged child labor situation when the daughter of a Guatemalan migrant family went missing from her home in Enterprise, Alabama. The girl, who is currently 14 years old, is alleged to have worked at the Alabama plant, along with two of her brothers, currently age 12 and 15. The children’s father, Pedro Tzi, was interviewed by Reuters, and confirmed that all three children had worked at SMART Alabama, and were not attending school while they worked at the plant.
Reuters spoke with 12 former and current SMART employees and labor recruiters, all of whom allege that Tzi’s children were part of a larger group of underage workers who had been employed by the facility in recent years. Former employees of SMART told Reuters that as many as 50 underage migrant workers may have been working at the plant, some described as being as young as 11 or 12 years old.
Alabama law requires children 17 or under to be enrolled in school, and prohibits anyone under 18 from working in metal stamping or pressing jobs.
Reuters reports that minors who worked at the SMART plant were hired through recruitment agencies, a practice that has been criticized by labor advocates as a way for large companies get staff without taking responsibility for checking on the eligibility of individual hires.
When the 14-year-old girl alleged to have worked at SMART went missing in early February, SMART dismissed a number of underage workers, according to former employees interviewed by Reuters. These former employees said the company feared attention from police and investigators as the missing child story led to an Amber alert and extensive news coverage. Police in Enterprise, AL didn’t have jurisdiction to investigate alleged labor violations at the SMART plant, and relayed information about alleged child labor to the state attorney general, police told Reuters. A spokesperson from the Alabama attorney general’s office declined comment when reached by Reuters.
In a statement provided to Reuters, SMART said it “denies any allegation that it knowingly employed anyone who is ineligible for employment.” The company admitted it relies on temporary work agencies, and said it expects such agencies “to follow the law in recruiting, hiring, and placing workers on its premises.”
Update, July 22, 1:45pm: A Hyundai USA spokesperson provided Jalopnik with the following statement:
“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.”
Jalopnik has reached out to SMART Alabama for comment, and will update this article with any statement we receive.