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Feds accuse Alabama auto parts maker of using child labor

SL Alabama, which manufactures lights and mirrors for Hyundai and Kia, is said to have illegally employed minors under the age of 16. It’s the second such allegation against Alabama automotive manufacturers in as many months.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (CN) — The U.S. Department of Labor filed a complaint against an Alabama automotive parts manufacturer Monday, alleging the facility employed “oppressive child labor” in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act since at least last November.

According to its website, some 650 employees of SL Alabama in Alexander City produce lights and side mirrors for automotive clients including Hyundai and Kia, both of which also have production plants in Alabama. 

In its otherwise vague complaint, the Department of Labor claims SL Alabama “repeatedly violated” child labor laws by employing minors “under the age of 16 years” during the period of examination. 

Last month, a Reuters news investigation revealed evidence of child labor violations in another automotive parts supplier, SMART Alabama in the city of Lucerne. There, it’s alleged children as young as 12 — primarily the children of migrant workers — worked alongside adults stamping sheet metal for the Hyundai manufacturing facility in Montgomery. 

In a separate but related civil action in California last month, Hyundai was hit with a class action lawsuit by Hyundai owners and lessees over the allegations.

A spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Labor declined to comment on Monday's lawsuit, but child labor violations in the state do not appear to be uncommon. According to its 2019 annual report, ADOL claimed it inspected 947 businesses for child labor violations and identified 166 violations. 

In one notable incident that year, a 15-year-old Guatemalan migrant performing unlawful roof work fell to his death on his first day on the job

Minors aged 14 and above can be legally employed in Alabama, with limitations on the hours they can work, environments they can work in, or tasks they can perform. Those under 16 ”should not work in connection within any manufacturing or mechanical establishment, cannery, mill, workshop, warehouse, or machine shop,” according to state guidance most recently published last year. Those aged 16-18 are allowed to work in manufacturing facilities, but they may not be certified to operate certain power driven woodworking machinery, metal cutting machinery, or industrial bakery equipment. 

Agricultural work is exempt from child labor laws in Alabama, but those under 18 may not work as butchers or in slaughterhouses. 

Meanwhile, “minors of any age may engage in work outside of formal employment such as babysitting, lawn mowing, tutoring, computer programming, and even lemonade stands,” the state advises. “ADOL does not cover work that a teen performs at their own home.”

Employers who wish to hire minors aged 14-17 must obtain a child labor certificate from ADOL. Nearly 17,000 such certificates were awarded in 2020, according to the department.

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