SOURCE: SOUTHERN EXPOSURE, Fall/Winter 1995, “Working in Harm’s Way;” Author: Ron Nixon
SYNOPSIS: Every day, children across America are working in environments detrimental to their social and educational development, their health and even their lives.
In 1992, a National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report found that 670 youths aged 16 to 17 were killed on the job from 1980 to 1989. Seventy percent of these deaths and injuries involved violations of state labor laws and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the federal law which prohibits youths under 18 from working in hazardous occupations. A second NIOSH report found that more than 64,100 children went to the emergency room for work-related injuries in 1992.
These numbers are a conservative estimate since even the best figures underestimate the number of working children by 25 to 30 percent. As of yet, there is no comprehensive national data collection system that accurately tracks the number of working youth, nor their occupation, where they work, or how many are injured or killed on the job.
Of the estimated five million youth in the work force, thousands are injured, even killed, because several barriers continue to prevent them from being adequately protected in the workplace.
A patchwork of inefficient data collection systems fail to monitor the total number, much less the well being, of youth in the workplace. Enforcement of the FLSA is lax. Cultural beliefs about the worth of work for children are strong. And, various PACs lobby successfully to keep child labor laws from being strengthened, and, in many cases, to weaken existing laws.
“Child labor today is at a point where violations are greater than at any point during the 1930s,” said Jeffrey Newman of the National Child Labor Committee, an advocacy group founded in 1904.
Violations are occurring today on farms and businesses around the country. Farm owners beat the system by allowing their entire family, including the children, to work under one person’s social security number or by hiring a farm contractor who, on the books, counts as only one employee (while the contractors then hire whomever they wish).
Businesses aren’t worried about the child labor violations that they commit because the laws are rarely enforced. One report found that the average business could expect to be inspected once every 50 years or so. Inspectors spend only about five percent of their time looking into child labor problems.
Even when companies are inspected and violations are found, the maximum penalty of $10,000 per violation is rarely enforced.
Lobbying efforts by various business trade organizations are making congressional reform nearly impossible. In the nation’s capital, money talks, and both the National Restaurant Association (NRA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), representing areas where many child labor violations occur, speak persuasively with their generous contributions to potential supporters of their agenda.
The restaurant industry alone has given $1.3 million to Republican candidates in recent years; House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been a favorite of both the NRA and the FMI. Since 1991, Gingrich has received more than $27,000 from both PACs.
SSU Censored Researcher: Marcie Goyer
COMMENTS: Author Ron Nixon confirmed that the story of children who are abused, injured, and even killed on the job received almost no attention in the major media last year. “CBS ran a story on agriculture workers that featured a small part on child labor in agriculture,” Nixon noted. “But other than that particular story, the mainstream press did little on child labor. Part of the reason is that child labor is viewed as an old story. However, as we found, no one had ever bothered to look at the barriers that prevent children from being injured in the workplace. Coverage of the topic was always: ‘children are being injured; what can we do to educate them and the parents about workplace dangers.’ No one ever focused on the data gaps, lack of enforcement, cultural myths about the value of work for children, and most of all, the political opposition to strengthening the child labor laws.
“The public would benefit from wider exposure of this story because it would allow parents to know about the conditions their children may be working in and would inform the general public of the abuses—namely injuries and deaths of working children in the name of profit. As far as migrant children are concerned, it would also show the American public the price we pay for our agricultural products.
“Those who benefit most from the lack of coverage of this topic are the industries that employ the most youth: the restaurant, grocery, agricultural, and garment industries. The restaurant and grocery industries, which employ 35 percent of all working children, gave nearly a half-million dollars to congressmen who sit on the committees that oversee child labor laws. In return, the House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would allow youth under 18 to operate dangerous machinery. However, there has been no press coverage.
“Along with the National Child Labor Coalition, we sent copies of the child labor story and a computer-assisted story on the campaign contributions from the grocery and restaurant industries to the Washington press just before the hearings on the latest child labor bill. Not one paper picked up the story. Only the Multinational Monitor and the Corporate Crime Reporter reported the results. We are currently compiling a list of all injuries, deaths, and violations of child labor laws in each state from a variety of sources that will give us a clearer picture of just how bad the problems are.”