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Kids as young as 14 were found working at a Tennessee factory that makes lawn mower parts for John Deere and others

(NBC News) From NBS News: Immigrant children as young as 14 were found working illegally amid dangerous heavy equipment at a Tennessee firm that make

(NBC News)

From NBS News: Immigrant children as young as 14 were found working illegally amid dangerous heavy equipment at a Tennessee firm that makes parts for lawn mowers sold by John Deere and other companies, according to Labor Department officials.


The company, Tuff Torq, was fined nearly $300,000 for hiring 10 children. As part of a consent agreement with the federal government, the company is also required to set aside $1.5 million to help the children who were illegally employed. Ryan Pott, general counsel for Tuff Torq’s majority owner, the Japanese firm Yanmar, acknowledged the violations to NBC News.

“The department will not tolerate companies profiting on the backs of children employed unlawfully in dangerous occupations,” said Seema Nanda, the department’s chief legal officer, whose office obtained the consent judgment against Tuff Torq. “Tuff Torq has agreed to disgorge profits, which will go to the benefit of the children. This sends a clear message: putting children in harm’s way in the workplace is not only illegal, but also comes with significant financial consequences.”


The Labor Department did not specify what work the children were doing. But Labor official Juan Coria said what his investigative team found in Tuff Torq’s “very busy” Morristown manufacturing plant was “astonishing.”


Coria, southeast regional administrator for the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, described an environment that he says caused anxiety among his investigators who witnessed children as young as 14 working late at night at the 24-hour manufacturing facility amid power-driven equipment that was being moved around the plant.


Pott, the general counsel for Tuff Torq’s majority owner, said the child workers were temporary and were not hired directly by Tuff Torq. He said they used fake names and false credentials to obtain jobs through a temporary staffing agency, and said Tuff Torq is “transitioning” away from doing business with the staffing company.


“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,” said Pott. “We are also actively engaging with our suppliers to reinforce our expectations regarding ethical labor practices and collaborate with them on implementing our updated policies.”


According to the Labor Department, within 30 days Tuff Torq must also hang signs at every entrance to the plant that say, “Stop! You must be at least 18 years of age to enter and work in this building.”


Nanda said through such agreements the agency is sending a message to the company and its whole community of suppliers and contractors. “They will look at their supply chain meaning their contractors, their staffing agencies, and make sure that they are doing these things as well.”


John Deere did not respond to a request for comment.


Labor officials say their investigation into the company began almost a year ago, in spring 2023, and investigators visited the facility multiple times. Officials declined to say what sparked the investigation.


The Labor Department has prioritized child labor enforcement since last spring amid a 152% increase in children found to be illegally employed since 2018, according to department figures.