Monday, November 24, 2008

Child Labor Going Largely Unchecked Part two of two

Child Labor Going Largely Unchecked

Part two of two

By Ames Alexander and Franco Ordonez

Charlotte Observer

November 10, 2008


In South Carolina, several young workers have died on

the job in recent years, according to government

documents and published reports. Among them:


Josue Daniel Martinez Castillo, 16, was working for a

construction company in Jedberg on May 10, 2006 when he

stepped between the beams of a roof frame and fell 20

feet to his death.


Rigouerto Xaca Sandoval, 15, and his brother Moses Xaca

Sandoval, 16, died in Blythewood on Jan. 28, 2003 when

the 8-foot trench where they were installing electrical

conduit caved in.


Gustavo Hilario, 16, died on March 9, 2004 after falling

10feet from a scaffold to a concrete slab while working

for a framing crew in North Myrtle Beach.


Aside from the death of Nery Castañeda, the Observer

found no other recent juvenile deaths in North Carolina.


Rules looser in agriculture


Agricultural work accounts for most workplace deaths

among children younger than 15. But child-labor rules

are looser in agriculture than for other U.S. employers.


Children as young as 12 - younger if they are working on

their family's farm - are allowed to work in the fields

in some situations. Fourteen- and 15-year-olds can

operate large tractors if they take a safety course. And

16-year-olds can work any agricultural job, no matter

how hazardous.


Though workplace safety advocates believe the laws are

lenient, not everyone follows them.


Heather Anderson, an advocate for young farm workers,

described seeing children as young as 6 working in

blueberry fields near Whiteville, N.C., on a day last

June when the temperature reached the mid- to upper 90s.

Anderson, who works with the Association of Farmworker

Opportunity Programs, said she visited a dozen farms in

the area during her two-week trip, and "every day we saw

kids." On a few of the days, she said, the temperature

exceeded 100 degrees.


The National Institute for Occupational Safety and

Health has pushed to tighten federal rules to better

protect children in agricultural work. To date, there

has been no action on the agency's recommendations.


Critics also contend regulators have done little to

investigate and punish those who violate the rules. In

2006, just 2 percent of the U.S. labor department's

child labor investigations were in agriculture,

according to the National Consumers League.


The number of federal child-labor investigations in

agriculture has plummeted from 142 in 1999 to 28 in



Federal officials say enforcement isn't their only tool.

They say they have tried to protect young farm workers

by issuing public service announcements and developing

other materials to educate parents and teens about safe



Ames Alexander


Nery Castañeda tackled a job that was never intended for

kids his age.


One afternoon last fall, the 17-year-old Guatemala

native ran a machine to grind damaged pallets into

mulch. When a co-worker at the Greensboro plant returned

from another task, he didn't see Nery - until he looked

inside the shredder.


"A person shouldn't die like this," said older brother

Luis. ".He came with a dream and found death."


Decades after the enactment of regulations designed to

prevent such tragedies, thousands of youths still get

hurt on American jobs deemed unsafe for young workers.

On a typical day, more than 400 juvenile workers are

injured on the job. Once every 10 days, on average, a

worker under the age of 18 is killed, federal statistics

show. added


Enforcement has waned, despite new evidence that many

employers are ignoring child labor laws. U.S. Department

of Labor investigations have dropped by nearly half

since fiscal year 2000.


"There are lots of kids being asked to do work that's

been prohibited for them - and it's been prohibited

because it's dangerous," said Carol Runyan, who heads

UNC's Injury Prevention Research Center. ".Our system is

failing them."


More than 3 million youths under age 18 have jobs.

Regulations prohibit them from doing a variety of

hazardous jobs, including most meat-processing work.


But last month, at an immigration raid at a House of

Raeford Farms poultry plant in Greenville, S.C., six

juveniles were among the workers detained. Three young

workers told the Observer they were under 18 when they

held jobs at House of Raeford plants requiring them to

make thousands of cuts a day with sharp knives. The

company says it requires job applicants to present

identification showing their age, but not all the

documentation is accurate.


At Agriprocessors, a large meatpacking plant in

Postville, Iowa, authorities recently charged owners

with thousands of child-labor violations after finding

that teenage employees were asked to use circular saws,

clean floors with powerful chemicals and perform other

dangerous tasks.


"The raids in Postville and Greenville show that 15- and

16-year-old kids are doing some of the most dangerous

jobs in America," says Reid Maki of the National

Consumers League. " . It's time for the U.S. Department

of Labor to investigate slaughterhouses and poultry



A study of 16- and 17-year-old construction workers in

North Carolina, published in 2006, found that more than

80 percent did tasks that were clearly prohibited. A

national survey of young retail and service workers,

published in 2007, found that more than half of males

and more than 40 percent of females performed prohibited



Runyan, who co-authored both studies, says much of the

blame lies with employers.


"I suspect there are employers who flagrantly disregard

the law," she said. "And I suspect there are others who

are clueless."


Little to deter employers


Employers who flout child-labor rules often face few



Federal law allows a maximum penalty of $11,000 for each

violation, but in 2006 the average penalty was less than

$1,000, according to the National Consumers League.

Total federal penalties for child labor violations

dropped 29 percent from 2000 to 2007.


Federal child labor laws cover large employers, as well

as smaller companies engaged in interstate commerce.

Most states also have their own child labor laws, which

usually cover small employers and impose additional

restrictions. But state fines tend to be smaller.


Under N.C. law, the maximum penalty for each violation

is $250. When employers fail to ensure juvenile workers

get youth employment certificates, the maximum fine is

$50 for each violation. That "doesn't seem to be a whole

lot of deterrent," says N.C. wage and hour director Jim

Taylor, whose office is in charge of enforcing - but not

writing - the state's child-labor laws.


In South Carolina, the maximum penalty for violations is

$1,000 per person per job.


Federal labor department officials say much has been

done to help improve conditions for young workers.

Alexander Passantino, administrator for the wage and

hour division of the U.S. Department of Labor, told a

congressional committee in September that officials have

worked to strengthen child-labor laws, raise public

awareness and target industries where young workers are

likely to be killed or injured. The number of youths

killed on the job has declined over the past decade, he



But critics say government has made little progress.

Since 2001, injury rates among young workers have

remained virtually flat, according to the National

Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.


Witnesses at the recent congressional hearing were asked

whether regulators are doing enough to protect children.

Several said the answer was no.


"Much more can and must be done to better protect our

young people from hazards and dangers they confront in

the workplace," testified Sally Greenberg, executive

director of the National Consumers League.


The perils of poultry


Meatpacking plants are among the workplaces where better

protections are most needed, child advocates say. Many

of those plants hire illegal immigrants with false

papers, excacerbating the challenge of stopping

juveniles from being employed.


In poultry plants, workers are surrounded by dangerous

machines and chemicals. And they're often required to

make thousands of cuts with sharp knives each day, work

that can leave them with lacerations and debilitating

nerve and muscle problems, such as carpal tunnel



But youths are finding work in such plants, the Observer



Elena Luna said she was 16 when she went to work at the

Mountaire Farms poultry plant in Lumber Bridge, N.C. At

first, she said, a human resources official told her she

wasn't old enough. But when she returned with a

recommendation from a cousin at the plant, the official

asked her whether she could do the work, she said.


"He said, "I don't want to see you in the nursing

station or they'll fire me," she said.


On the processing line, she said, she got little

training and worked with a supervisor who often yelled

at her to hurry up.


Making thousands of cuts with dull knives every day, her

hands began to hurt. "Sometimes I couldn't hold the

knife," she said.


Luna, who worked under the name Rosaura, said she often

wanted to quit, but endured because she needed to repay

family members from Mexico who financed her trip to the

U.S. - and she thought it was one of the few jobs she

could get.


Luna, now 20, said other juveniles also worked at the

plant. "I was not the only one," she said. ". Everybody



Mike Tirrell, vice president of operations for Mountaire

Farms, said Luna signed paperwork indicating she was 18

when she was hired in 2005. She was fired about 15

months later, after company officials discovered false

information on her application, Tirrell said.


He said he could not speak to Luna's specific

allegations, but noted that the scenario she described

with the human resources official would violate company

policy. He disputed that the company has employed

numerous underage workers.


The company participates in a voluntary federal program

that helps employers determine whether job applicants

are legally authorized to work in the country. "We take

every step that we can reasonably take to ensure the

eligibility of applicants .," Tirrell said.


Nery's last day


Nery Castañeda lived a healthy life. He loved to play

soccer and steered clear of alcohol, cigarettes and

confrontation, his brother Luis said.


In June 2007, he went to work for Pallet Express, a

manufacturer in Greensboro with about 80 employees. He

presented his ID, which showed he was 17, his brother



Several months into the job, he was asked to operate the

pallet shredder, a massive machine that turned damaged

pallets into mulch.


On the day of the accident, Nery's co-worker stepped

away to get a forklift, Luis said. By the time the co-

worker returned, Castañeda had been devoured by the



N.C. OSHA cited the company for eight serious

violations, including its failure to put required safety

guards on the machine. The agency fined Pallet Express

$12,000. The state labor department has also fined the

company $250 for putting a juvenile without a youth

employment certificate in a hazardous job he shouldn't

have been doing.


The family, meanwhile, has filed a lawsuit alleging,

among other things, that the company failed to provide

Nery with the proper safety gear, training and



Company vice president Lynn Bell said she could not

comment on the case because it is still under



Luis vividly remembers seeing his brother-in-law's pale

face that afternoon in October 2007 when he came to

deliver the news that there had been an accident. Luis

sank deep into a chair. "No," he recalled moaning.


"I didn't believe it," Luis said. ".He was a kid."


Ames Alexander: (704) 358-5060; | Franco Ordonez: (704)



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