Child Labor Going Largely Unchecked
Part two of two
November 10, 2008
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
Aside from the death of Nery CastaÃ±eda, the Observer
found no other recent juvenile deaths in
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
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
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
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
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
Nery CastaÃ±eda tackled a job that was never intended for
kids his age.
One afternoon last fall, the 17-year-old
native ran a machine to grind damaged pallets into
mulch. When a co-worker at the
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
Enforcement has waned, despite new evidence that many
employers are ignoring child labor laws.
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
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
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
"The raids in Postville and
16-year-old kids are doing some of the most dangerous
Consumers League. " . It's time for the
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
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
writing - the state's child-labor laws.
$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
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
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 CastaÃ±eda 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
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, CastaÃ±eda 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."
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