A 16-year-old Guatemalan immigrant worker became the third worker to die at a Hattiesburg, Miss., poultry plant since 2020 after a machinery-related accident last week.
The boy, Duvan Tomas Perez, died in the Mar-Jac Poultry plant on James Street at around 8 p.m. on July 14. NBC News reported that a worker heard him yell for help moments before his death. “I knew he had died,” the worker added.
Federal law prohibits anyone under 18 from working in poultry plants because they are considered too hazardous for multiple reasons, including their use of power-driven equipment. NBC reported that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division have launched investigations into Perez’s death at the Forrest County plant.
In a press release from the Gainesville, Ga.,-based company, the Hattiesburg Mar-Jac Complex Manager Joe Colee said their “employees are our most valuable asset, and safety is our number one priority.”
“We strive daily to work as safely as possible and are truly devastated whenever an employee is injured,” he said, adding that “any issues identified in the investigation will be corrected immediately.”
Before Perez’s death, two adult employees also died while working at the Hattiesburg Mar Jac plant in the past three years. In December 2020, Hattiesburg Police announced that 33-year-old Joel Velasco Toto had died from abdominal and pelvic trauma in an accident involving plant equipment. OSHA records show the company fined the plant $6,827 for Toto’s death.
Then, in May 2021, 48-year-old Bobby Butler died in another machinery-related accident in the plant’s evisceration department. An OSHA report said Butler “was removing stuck chickens and chicken parts from the rotating carousel of a Meyn Maestro Eviscerator while it was operating.”
“Employee’s left sleeve (near his hand) was caught on the Meyn Maestro Eviscerator and he was pulled onto the pan below the machine and against a horizontal support member for the eviscerator, pinning his body against the support and partially under the eviscerator’s carousel,” the report said. “The employee was killed from these injuries.” The records show that OSHA fined Mar-Jac $27,306 for Butler’s death in 2021, but that the company is contesting the penalties.
For decades, poultry plant companies have recruited South American immigrants to Mississippi. In August 2019, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided seven Mississippi poultry plants in the largest single-state worksite raid in U.S. history, arresting nearly 700 undocumented immigrant workers in Bay Springs, Carthage, Sebastopol, Pelahatchie and Canton. (The Hattiesburg Mar-Jac plant was not among those targeted).
Because of the dangerous conditions and low pay, poultry plants often have difficulty retaining American citizens as employees, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Anthropologist Angela Stuesse told this reporter for the Jackson Free Press in September 2019.
“It’s degrading, difficult work,” she said. “I think the folks who stay in the chicken plants are the people who don’t have other options and certainly, mostly undocumented immigrants fall into that category, but not only.”
After the 2019 ICE raids, the U.S. Department of Labor cited several of the targeted plants for employment infractions. The department accused Pearl River Foods in Carthage of paying workers less than minimum wage after deducting the cost of necessary equipment like gloves and aprons; it also fined Koch Foods with a civil penalty of $1,693 for hiring a 15-year-old child to work in its Morton, Miss., poultry plant. The Justice Department also charged several poultry plant leaders in 2020.
Federal authorities have long accused Mar-Jac Poultry Inc. of violating safety standards. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Labor announced $379,800 in penalties against the Gainesville-based company. In addition to other alleged violations, the department cited the corporation for “37 serious safety and health violations” amounting to $127,800 in proposed penalties.
Mar-Jac did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.
Correction: This story originally said Bobby Butler was 28 years old when he died; he was 48. We apologize for the error.