04/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Labor Dept Ignored Tip On Kids In Meatpacking Plant: GAO (AUDIO)

An undercover investigation by the Government Accountability Office lowers the boom on the Department of Labor for failing to protect workers. The GAO's findings -- released at a congressional hearing Wednesday -- show that the labor department's Wage and Hour Division failed to respond not just to mundane complaints about missing paychecks and overtime pay, but even a tip that school-age children were operating dangerous machinery during the school day.

Ten GAO operatives called the department to complain of missing paychecks, unpaid overtime, and below-minimum wages. The complaints (which were not for real violations) were based on complaints that the labor department typically receives. One investigator left a voicemail saying he'd seen underage kids working in a meatpacking plant in Modesto, California.

"They seem to be working all day, probably during school," the faux-tipster said, according to audio provided by the GAO. "They're working on some heavy type of equipment, like, I guess you call them circular saws, and the machine that makes hamburger meat."

The GAO says the department never investigated and has no record of the beefy tip.

The Committee on Education and Labor, chaired by California Democratic Rep. George Miller, held a hearing today on the findings and has put the recording -- along with five others -- on YouTube. The GAO's report is available from the committee's Web site.

Miller said at the hearing that the GAO's report revealed a fundamental unfairness: "You steal from the employee, there's no penalty; you steal from the employer, you go to jail."

"It's a system with no teeth in it," said Gregory Kutz, the GAO's managing director of forensic audits and special investigations.

The meatpacking anecdote was so ghastly that during Q&A, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) sought assurance that the tip was, in fact, fictitious. Price said the department employees found failing to do their jobs ought to be rooted out.

"This is not acceptable," he said.