End Child-Labor Abuse

ONE day before a congressional hearing on child labor last month, US Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole announced results from a three-day national sweep: 7,000 children were found working under illegal conditions. Indeed, alarming numbers of young Americans are working illegally. Most work far too long hours or too late at night - their teachers can testify to their listless behavior in class. Worse yet, tens of thousands work at hazardous jobs. They are slicing meat in fast food restaurants, operating paper-baling machines and trash compactors, driving forklifts, racing through traffic to deliver pizzas, and toiling away in garment industry sweatshops.

I welcome Secretary Dole's readiness to get tough with child-labor scofflaws. But the problems of child labor in America require more than a finger in the dike. Consider the following:

According to the General Accounting Office (GAO), child-labor violations in America increased 150 percent in six years - a disturbing leap from 10,000 in 1983 to over 25,000 reported violations in 1989. There were more than 128,000 work-related injuries to children reported just in 1987 and 1988.

Fewer than 1,000 Labor Department compliance officers enforce all provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, including wage and hour violations for adult workers. Only 4 percent of the department's enforcement activities are devoted to child labor, according to the GAO. Incredibly, Secretary Dole asserts no additional inspectors or other resources are needed for now.

Federal child-labor labor laws have not been thoughtfully updated since 1938. Yet detailed recommendations from a blue-ribbon panel of experts, the Child Labor Advisory Committee, have been sitting on the labor secretary's desk since 1988.

A three-day undercover sting followed by a highly publicized media blitz by Secretary Dole certainly is no substitute for practical laws and sustained enforcement over time. That is why Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of New York and I will be introducing new legislation to update our child-labor laws, to address the newer violations that compound recurring old problems.

Here are some of our ideas:

First, the penalties for child-labor violators must be tougher. Current law sets a maximum fine of $1,000. Criminal penalties as high as $100,000 and at least six months in jail would not be out of line for willful and multiple violators who often view current low fines as just a cost of doing business. Less serious violators should be charged civil penalties up to $10,000. Repeat offenders should be barred from bidding on federal contracts, when applicable.

Second, getting a good education is the top job for all young Americans. Perhaps work permits should be required for anybody under age 18 unless he or she is a high school graduate. Consideration should be given to limiting 16- and 17-year-olds to 20-hour work weeks during the regular school year. Forty-hour work weeks are now permissible and not uncommon.

Third, the law should emphasize that work experience, under the proper circumstances, can benefit young Americans. Our legislative focus should center on prohibiting the exploitation of children in the workplace, not on preventing minors from working for pay at all.

A key is strengthening the work-permit system. Teachers, principals and doctors must take more seriously their roles. They are the first line of defense in protecting children from being exploited in the workplace.

The falsification or bad-faith approval of work permits could be made subject to civil and criminal penalties. School districts that take this responsibility lightly could see some of their federal aid called into doubt.

Also, the basic conditions under which work permits can be approved should be revised. For example, before a work permit is issued to a minor, there should be clear determinations that the proposed work is safe and that it does not pose any long-term hazards to the youth's health.

Fourth, priority must go to informing young Americans (and their parents) about their rights and how to protect themselves on the job. At the time when minors apply for work permits, why not require that they be informed and instructed in straightforward terms about their basic rights on the job? Routinely providing that information would go a long way toward empowering working children to protect themselves.

Similarly, employers of minors should be required to post prominently on their job sites notices informing their young employees of their basic rights and protections under the law.

Fifth, monitoring and reporting on employment patterns of minors must be improved. Nobody, including the Labor Department, has wholly reliable and comprehensive statistics on the scope of child labor. Recently disclosed statistics on child-labor violators, shocking by themselves, represent only the tip of the iceberg.

Secretary Dole asserts that ``the cop is out of the precinct station and on the beat'' at the Labor Department. Well, good - if the Labor ``cops'' stay on the beat. Now, legislators at all levels of government need to make certain our laws address more effectively the unique vulnerabilities of young Americans on the job, while safeguarding and nurturing their promise.

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