Migrant children have allegedly been found working at a Hyundai supplier in Alabama after police launched a probe into the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl who ran away with a 21-year-old plant employee.
SMART Alabama in Luverne, an automotive parts manufacturer that has supplied parts for Hyundai since 2003, reportedly fired multiple underage workers – some as young as 12 – as publicity around the missing girl’s case heated up.
A former employee alleged that as many as 50 underage workers were employed across various shifts when he was working at the plant.
The accusations date back to a February Amber Alert regarding Eidy Aracely Tzi Coc, who had briefly disappeared from her family’s home in the town of Enterprise alongside 21-year-old Alvaro Cucul.
Coc and her two brothers, aged 12 and 15, all worked at the plant earlier this year and weren’t going to school, according to people familiar with the situation. Pedro Tzi, Eidy’s father, confirmed that his children had worked there in an interview.
Tzi contacted Enterprise police on February 3 after she didn’t come home and police issued an amber alert.
They also launched a manhunt for Cucul, another Guatemalan migrant and SMART worker around that time with whom Tzi believed she might be. Using cell phone geolocation data, police located Cucul and the girl in a parking lot in Athens, Georgia the same day she was reported missing.
The girl told officers that Cucul was a friend and that they had traveled the nearly 300-mile journey to look for more work. Cucul was arrested and later deported.
After the disappearance generated local news coverage, SMART allegedly dismissed a number of underage workers, according to two former employees and other locals familiar with the plant. The sources said the police attention raised fears that authorities could soon crack down on other underage workers.
Since then, the plant has faced further accusations of child labor infractions from the police, Coc’s family and at least eight former and current employees at the factory.
SMART Alabama LLC, listed by Hyundai in corporate filings as a majority-owned unit, supplies parts for some of the most popular cars and SUVs built by the automaker in Montgomery, its flagship U.S. assembly plant.
Hyundai didn’t respond to phone calls or emails from reporters seeking comment.
Tzi’s children, who have now enrolled for the upcoming school term, were among a larger cohort of underage workers who found jobs at the Hyundai-owned supplier over the past few years, according to interviews with a dozen former and current plant employees and labor recruiters.
He said he regrets that his children had gone to work. The family needed any income it could get at the time but is now trying to move on.
Tzi added: ‘All that is over now. The kids aren’t working and in fall they will be in school.’
Several of these minors, authorities said, have ignored schooling in order to work long shifts at the plant, a sprawling facility with a documented history of health and safety violations, including amputation hazards.
Police in Enterprise, about 45 miles from the plant, don’t have jurisdiction to investigate possible labor-law violations at the factory. Instead, the force notified the state attorney general’s office after the incident, Detective James Sanders said.
Mike Lewis, a spokesperson at the Alabama attorney general’s office, declined to comment. It’s unclear whether the office or other investigators have contacted SMART or Hyundai about possible violations.
It has not yet been confirmed how many children worked at the factory, what they were paid and what the terms of their employment were.
One former worker at SMART, an adult migrant who left for another auto industry job last year, claimed there were around 50 underage workers between the different plant shifts, adding that he knew some of them personally.
Another former adult worker at SMART, a U.S. citizen who also left the plant last year, alleged she worked alongside about a dozen minors on her shift.
Another former employee, Tabatha Moultry, 39, worked on SMART’s assembly line for several years through 2019.
Moultry claimed the plant had high turnover and increasingly relied on migrant workers to keep up with intense production demands. She said she remembered working with one migrant girl who ‘looked 11 or 12 years old.’
The girl would come to work with her mother, Moultry said. When Moultry asked her real age, the girl said she was 13.
Moultry added: ‘She was way too young to be working in that plant, or any plant’.
David Michaels, for Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, called the allegations an outrage.
Michaels said: ‘[Consumers] should know that these cars are being built, at least in part, by workers who are children and need to be in school rather than risking life and limb because their families are desperate for income’.
SMART, in a statement, said it follows federal, state and local laws and ‘denies any allegation that it knowingly employed anyone who is ineligible for employment.’
The company said it relies on temporary work agencies to fill jobs and expects ‘these agencies to follow the law in recruiting, hiring, and placing workers on its premises.’
SMART didn’t answer specific questions about the workers cited in this story or on-the-job scenes they and other people familiar with the factory described.
Many of the minors at the plant were hired through recruitment agencies, according to current and former SMART workers and local labor recruiters.
Although staffing firms help fill industrial jobs nationwide, they have often been criticized by labor advocates because they enable large employers to outsource responsibility for checking the eligibility of employees to work.
Alabama and federal laws limit minors under age 18 from working in metal stamping and pressing operations such as SMART, where proximity to dangerous machinery can put them at risk. Alabama law also requires children 17 and under to be enrolled in school.
In late 2020, SMART wrote a letter to U.S. consular officials in Mexico seeking a visa for a Mexican worker. The letter, written by SMART General Manager Gary Sport and reviewed by Reuters, said the plant was ‘severely lacking in labor’ and that Hyundai ‘will not tolerate such shortcomings.’
Earlier this year, attorneys filed a class-action lawsuit against SMART and several staffing firms who help supply workers with U.S. visas. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on behalf of a group of about 40 Mexican workers, alleges some employees, hired as engineers, were ordered to work menial jobs instead.
SMART in court documents called allegations in the suit ‘baseless’ and ‘meritless.’