Child labor crackdown promised
Officials say fines must be tougher increased needed
(Charlotte Observer, Nov 13, 2008)
Federal and state lawmakers said this week they will push to strengthen the government's power to keep youths out of dangerous jobs and punish employers who violate child labor laws.
In Washington, some members of Congress want to beef up child labor inspections. In Raleigh, some legislators -- along with the current and incoming governors -- said they will move to stiffen fines for violating child labor laws. The maximum penalty of $250 per violation in North Carolina hasn't changed in nearly three decades.
"The employment of underage workers in high-risk, physically dangerous jobs as uncovered by the Charlotte Observer is alarming," Governor-elect Beverly Perdue said. "The need is clear -- there must be tougher enforcement of our state's child labor laws and stiffer penalties for any business or industry caught breaking them."
Their comments came in response to Charlotte Observer stories this week showing that federal child labor enforcement has declined, despite new evidence that employers are ignoring the laws. As part of its investigation, the Observer interviewed more than 20 current and former House of Raeford Farms workers who said the poultry company often hired underage workers.
Gov. Mike Easley said he would instruct his staff to try to address the problems before he leaves office in January.
"It's hard to believe that's going on in this century and in this state," he said. "You're really talking about a form of child abuse here. We're not a state that wants children abused and endangered."
With a stronger majority in Congress and their party's candidate preparing to enter the White House, Democrats say they will soon find it easier to make federal workplace safety changes.
U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D- Calif., who heads the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, said she'll push to increase the number of inspectors who can investigate child labor complaints and update rules to keep juveniles out of hazardous jobs.
"Your story, I thought, was just heartbreaking," said Woolsey, who held a hearing in September about federal efforts to protect working children. "Nobody should face dangerous working conditions -- particularly our children. ...We have a great deal of work to do."
Federal child labor investigations have dropped by nearly half since fiscal year 2000.
Recent studies have found that a large percentage of young workers are taking on jobs deemed unsafe for people their age. On a typical day, more than 400 juveniles are hurt on the job.
Stiffer state fines
In North Carolina, state Senate leader Marc Basnight said he has directed his staff to work with the N.C. Department of Labor and the Attorney General to look at the issues the newspaper raised. He questioned whether the state's $250 fine was enough.
"You could be penalized more for throwing trash out the window than you could for abusing the laws that are in place as it pertains ... to kids and young folks," he said. "And that should not be."
State Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat, called for stiffer penalties and oversight of the Department of Labor, headed by Commissioner Cherie Berry, a Republican.
"This could require some legislation if she doesn't do more on her own," said Luebke, who heads the House Finance Committee.
Berry said it's up to the General Assembly to amend child labor laws, but she's willing to work with legislators.
Berry, recently elected to her third term, said her department has limited authority to investigate large employers for child labor violations, and said that parents have the "ultimate responsibility" to determine what type of work their children do.