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Caution Children at Work

September 1, 2000
Related Topics: Workplace Violence, Wages and Hours, Safety and Workplace Violence, Featured Article
WhenRichard was 14, he worked in the agriculture fields of the Southwest, chopping weedsaround the cotton plants. One night, he woke up, unable to breathe. Growers, he says, hadbeen spraying in the fields. Now 17, he remembers that he stopped breathing and tried todrink water. “I ran into my mom’s room ‘cause I didn’t have no air inme, and I was like trying to get air in there but couldn’t,” he said during aninterview with New York City-based Human Rights Watch, an international rights group thatpublished a report in June entitled “Fingers to the Bone: United States Failure toProtect Child Farmworkers.”

“Atthe hospital they said I was allergic to something out there...something they werespraying,” says Richard. To protect his identity, his real name was not disclosed byHuman Rights Watch. “They sprayed the fields in the morning. We’d be out therewhen they were doing it.”

Childlabor is first and foremost a safety issue, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Yetdespite a steady decrease in the number of occupational injuries and fatalities to youngworkers over the last four years, working children continue to be seriously injured andkilled on the job -- some 70 teen deaths each year and 210,000 injuries, according to theNational Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. At least 70,000 teens are injuredseriously enough to require hospital emergency room treatment.

With5 to 6 million teens between 14 and 17 working in regular jobs at some time each year, thekey law for HR professionals to understand is the Fair Labor Standards Act’schild-labor provisions. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes minimum wage,overtime pay, record-keeping and child-labor standards, including those related tonon-hazardous work environments. It affects full-time and part-time workers in the privatesector and in federal, state and local governments.

Inobservance of Labor Day, here are some recent situations that highlight the need toprotect children’s lives and health in the workplace, along with recommendations onhow to avoid FLSA violations.

Piecework problems

Ittook the media to prompt an investigation of home-based piecework practices inCalifornia’s Silicon Valley. The state Department of Labor Standards Enforcement, thefederal Department of Labor and the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration(OSHA) created a task force after a special news report, “Paid by the Piece,”was published in 1999 by the San Jose Mercury News.

Despitelaws barring children under the age of 14 from industrial work, youngsters often help withelectronics assembly done at home. In two homes observed by the Mercury News, childrenperformed simple tasks, their smaller fingers well-suited for handling miniaturecomponents.

Inone case, Quyen Tran and her family reportedly assembled cables at home for $1.50 to $2per cable. Sometimes her then 11-year-old daughter Mimi and her other children helped byscrewing the separate wires into the cable connectors.

“Inany home worker situation, we’d have a concern if family members are involved in themanufacturing process,” says George Friday, regional administrator at the federalDepartment of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division for eight western states.

Outsourcingis standard in the industry, with such large computer, networking, and telecommunicationscompanies as Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, IBM and Intel delegating assembly work. Some work isdelegated to small firms such as Compass Components in Fremont, California, or to largerfirms, such as Solectron Corp. of Milpitas. Industry experts say that contractmanufacturers in Silicon Valley total roughly 300, although there are no official tallies.

Fridaysays the DOL didn’t discover much during its investigation. It turned up only twocases of age violations. In both instances, no penalties were enforced upon thesubcontractors for allowing their employees to take work home. They received warnings fortheir first-time offenses. The primary employer was notified of the violations.

Somecommunity advocates say that the DOL isn’t trying hard enough. Investigators need tomake more serious efforts to monitor home piecework practices. In California, one of theproblems is that home work isn’t banned, as it is in the garment, toy, andfood-preparation industries. “It’s legally permitted, “ says Doris Ng,staff attorney at San Francisco-based Equal Rights Advocates, a public-interest law firm.“In the electronics industry, we’re only starting to see stories andinvestigations of what’s going on.” She hopes the state of California willeventually ban home work in the industry. “That’s possible,” she says.

Toavoid violations, HR managers should be sure their companies are subcontracting to bonafide companies. Friday advises employers to double-check a subcontractor’sinvestments, equipment, property, capital, license, and tax numbers. “See ifthey’ve been in business a while, and get references from other companies that usedthem.”

Don’tthink that subcontractors will shoulder all the blame for a violation. The DOL has anemployer penalty known as “hot goods.” Under section 6.7 of the FLSA, the labordepartment can restrict a manufacturer’s shipment of goods produced in violation ofchild-labor regulations. Given such penalties, manufacturers are more likely to resolvetheir liabilities. Says Friday: “These are goods they want on the market.”

Wageand hour pitfalls

Withtoday’s continuing worker shortage, teens have become more attractive sources oflabor. The retail industry, for example, employs 60 percent of teen-agers under 18 who areworking. The U.S. Department of Labor and various state agencies have taken note of that,and boosted their educational and outreach efforts. They’ve also imposed penalties onmajor violators. So in addition to age provisions of the FLSA, employers also need towatch employees’ wages and hours:

  • InMarch, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart agreed to pay $205,650 for more than 1,400 violations ofchild-labor laws in the biggest case of its kind. The violations from January 1995 to June1998 involved minors working too early or too late, too many hours a week, or too manydays in a row.

  • Abouta third of Iowa grocery stores included in 1998 and 1999 DOL investigations violatedchild-labor laws. The investigations found 282 minors working beyond hours limitations and130 minors either loading or operating a power-driven paper baler in violation of the law.

Employersin every industry need to educate young employees on their responsibilities, such asclocking in and out at the proper time, and making sure that schedule trades, which arecommon among teen-age employees, don’t violate the FLSA. Companies also can put signson hazardous equipment to remind young employees that it’s off-limits.

Companiesshould know that despite recent downsizing in the federal agency, child labor is apriority issue for U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman. Some DOL regions are actually inthe process of hiring more investigators. In California, for example, Friday’s Wageand Hour Division has hired more bilingual investigators to communicate with workers whospeak Mandarin, Korean, Vietnamese, and Hmong (the language of mountain-dwelling peoplewho immigrated here from Laos). “We’re trying to make sure there’s a bridgeto the communities that often don’t trust the government,” he says.

Dangerin the fields

Farmwork is the most dangerous work open to children in this country, says Lee Tucker, aTucson-based consultant to the Children’s Rights division of Human Rights Watch.Tucker, also an attorney, wrote the report for the organization, based on interviewsconducted between the fall of 1998 and early this year.

“Childlabor in agriculture is a hidden phenomenon,” says Tucker. “Although the U.S hasbeen a champion of children’s labor rights abroad, it hasn’t taken a strongerlook at working children here, in particular those in agriculture.”

Drawingon scores of interviews with child farm workers between ages 13 and 16, and farm-workeradvocates, the “Fingers to the Bone” investigation found that:

  • Juvenilefarm workers are routinely exposed to dangerous pesticides, which can cause rashes,headaches, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. Long-term consequences of pesticide poisoninginclude cancer, brain damage, and learning and memory problems.
  • Manyyoung farm workers are forced to work without access to toilet facilities, hand-washingfacilities, and adequate drinking water, the three most basic sanitation requirements.
  • Thelack of hand-washing facilities contributes to pesticide poisoning and bacterialinfections, while the lack of adequate drinking water can lead to dehydration and heatillness.
  • Childrenoften work in fields where the temperature is well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Childrenworking in agriculture suffer a high rate of injuries from knives and heavy equipment.
  • Childfarm workers account for 8 percent of all working minors, but suffer 40 percent ofwork-related fatalities among children.
  • Youngfarm workers are often cheated out of their rightful wages, and many earn far less thanminimum wage. Some interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported earnings as low as twodollars an hour.

Agricultureindustry leaders, however, say that critics are negating the progress of growers’compliance. Because of stepped-up enforcement by the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division,growers have become more aware of the potential violations.

SaysGeorge Daniels, executive vice president of Sacramento, California-based Farm EmployersLabor Service: “Child-labor laws are quite complex. But growers have become moreeducated.” Still, agriculture companies need to develop an overall policy for theemployment of minors. “Determine your age threshhold and don’t go belowit,” says Daniels. In addition, employers should make sure that field supervisorsunderstand the procedures in employing minors. They should obtain appropriate permits andmake sure that youths aren’t working beyond the scope of the law.

Record-keepingis also important. Earlier this year, a Social Security Administration official encouragedfarmers to address the growing problem of employee names and Social Security numberssubmitted on wage and tax forms not matching the administration’s records. NormanGoldstein, a Social Security Administration senior financial executive, urged farmers touse the agency’s Enumeration Verification Program, a free service to check employeeverification prior to filing W-2 forms. He said the administration will accept theirreports if more than half of the name and number combinations are correct, but will rejectand return the report to the employer if incorrect matches exceed that amount. “Wewant [farmers] to go through due diligence and make reasonable efforts to get accurateinformation.”

Meanwhile,Human Rights Watch has called on Congress to amend the FLSA, which specifically exemptsunderage farm-workers from the minimum age and maximum hour requirements protecting otherchildren. In other occupations, the FLSA prohibits the employment of children under 14,and limits those under 16 to three hours of work a day when school is in session. The FLSAalso allows 16- and 17-year olds to work under hazardous conditions in agriculture. In allother occupations, the minimum age for hazardous work is 18.

TheClinton administration has said that in its remaining months, it will support legislationthat limits agricultural work by teens. One bill, sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), would increase the minimum age for farm workers to 14. Currently 12- and13-year-olds can hold some agricultural jobs.

“Ouryouth should be nurtured, not neglected,” labor secretary Alexis Herman said at arecent conference. “They should be educated, not exploited.”

Workforce,September 2000, Vol. 79, No. 9, pp. 45-50 -- Subscribe now!

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