CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. – State investigators have found child labor law violations involving 12 minors working at a cosmetics packaging shop run by a New York religious community and are expanding their probe to eight other sites affiliated with the group, officials said Tuesday.
State labor department investigators visited the Twelve Tribes community in Cambridge on Monday after the TV show "Inside Edition" aired hidden camera footage purporting to show children working at the group's packaging facility and a 6-year-old boy picking potatoes at its farm. Labor officials said Tuesday that due to the violations at Common Sense Farm, they are opening cases that could result in fines totaling tens of thousands of dollars.
The TV show said Common Sense Farm packages cosmetics for companies like Acure and Savannah Bee that are sold by major retailers.
A former worker wore a hidden camera and pretended to go back to work in the commune near the Vermont border. She was filmed talking to children in the factory who said they were 11 and 10. A producer filmed what the syndicated show said was a 6-year-old boy struggling to push a wheelbarrow and pick potatoes.
They also filmed an adult who explained that they beat the children with thin bamboo rods as a form of discipline.
"Every child under the age of 18 in this state has a right to be protected by the Child Labor Law, and we take our enforcement responsibilities seriously," labor commissioner Roberta Reardon said Tuesday in a prepared statement. "Children are our most valuable asset and compliance with the Child Labor Law is not discretionary — it's mandatory."
In a statement released Tuesday, the community said children occasionally spend time with their parents in the shop on the farm where they live. "Likening those moments to oppressive industrial child labor that happens in 3rd world countries, not only takes them out of context but is also sadly inaccurate," Robert Racine of the community wrote.
Racine said Acure Organics and Savannah Bee "did the necessary inspections to be assured their products were made with integrity and under the governing laws of this land."
The labor department said it's also investigating Twelve Tribes communities in Coxsackie, Oak Hill, Oneonta, Ithaca and Hamburg, as well as the group's Yellow Deli restaurants in Oak Hill and Oneonta and its Mate Factor cafe in Hamburg.
A website for the group said its members "follow the pattern of the early church" as described in the New Testament as "all the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had."
Acure said it would stop doing business with the factory. There was no immediate comment Tuesday from Savannah Bee.