Child Labor in the U.S. Continues As We Mark the 100th Anniversary of the Historic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and Many States Are Seeking to Further Weaken Protections
Washington, D.C., March 21, 2011—Today, the National Consumers League held a symposium calling on Congress to take steps in the next 100 days to preserve, protect, and bolster labor laws in the United States. The call to action takes place following moves by several states’ legislatures to pass laws that work roll back hard-earned workers’ rights. The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs’ (AFOP) Children in the Fields Campaign Program Director Norma Flores López served as a panelist discussing the current state of child labor in the United States.
In the panel today, Flores López stated, “The U.S. needs to strengthen and equalize the child labor laws for the safety of all children, not take steps backward.”
During the event she noted that despite agriculture being one of the most dangerous industries (the U.S. Department of Labor statistics consistently rank it in the top three along with mining and construction), lawmakers exempted children working in agriculture from nearly all of the protections called for in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Currently, farmworker children as young as 12 are allowed to work an unlimited amount of hours outside of school, many times in jobs that require them to use sharp tools and that expose them to dangerous chemicals. Children are also allowed to perform hazardous work in agriculture at the age of 16, including operating heavy machinery, work that is deemed illegal in all other industries. According to the 2011 Fact Sheet on Childhood Agricultural Injuries, between 1995 and 2000, there were 695 total farm-related youth fatalities on U.S. farms.
Now, legislators in Missouri and Maine are seeking to erode current protections for all working youth. On February 7, Missouri State Senator Jane Cunningham (R-St. Louis) introduced SB222, which would revoke parts of the current Missouri child labor laws. The bill will allow younger children to work and remove the restrictions on the number of hours they are allowed to work in addition to removing the need for a work permit. If the bill is passed into law, schools will lose the ability to pull a permit if a child’s academic performance begins to suffer. The bill would also “remove the authority of the director of the Division of Labor Standards to inspect employers who employ children and to require them to keep certain records for children they employ,” and “repeal the presumption that the presence of a child in a workplace is evidence of employment.” Last year alone, the department issued 872 child labor violations across the state, with time and hour violations as the second most common type of citation. On February 10, the bill was referred to the Senate General Laws Committee and did not have a set hearing date yet.
Maine’s State Senator Debra Plowman (R-Hampden) is backed by Gov. Paul LePage in a bill allowing highschoolers to work longer hours and more often during the school year. Those pushing to repeal the child labor protections enacted in 1991 for the changes include industry groups such as the Maine Restaurant Association, arguing that current laws are too strict compared to other New England states.
“The Triangle fire reminds us that the welfare and protection of workers – their wages, benefits and their safety and health – must be high on our agenda,” said Sally Greenberg, Executive Director, National Consumers League. “Five thousand workers die on the job every year – that’s far too many. We can and we must do better. This symposium will help us to focus and to redouble our efforts to enhance and improve worker safety and health.”
About the Children in the Fields Campaign:
The Children in the Fields Campaign is a project of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), a national federation of non-profit and public agencies that provide job training and services for America’s farmworkers. The campaign strives to improve the quality of life of migrant and seasonal farmworker children by advocating for enhanced educational opportunities and the elimination of discriminatory federal child labor laws in agriculture. For additional comment or interview from an AFOP expert, please contact Ayrianne Parks at (202) 828-6006 x140 or Parks@AFOP.org.