Federal crackdown appears to have done little to curb use of child labor in U.S.

December 16, 1990|By Boston Globe

NEW YORK -- Behind a cramped and noisy garment shop, sandwiched between old three-decker homes in a section of Queens, 9-year-old Guang Jiang is spending his day hunched over a work bench helping his father stitch women's dresses together.

He is being paid 25 cents an hour.

"My son comes to the factory to help me count the garment material," his father, Kong Jiang, told a state garment industry inspector. Said the boy, in newly learned English: "I just come to work when my father tell me to do so, to make easy for my father to work faster."

Nine months after a nationwide federal crackdown on child labor in this country -- a crackdown that has drawn more headlines for the Department of Labor than any of its other operations in decades -- life goes on much as before in thousands of dirty, dangerous sweatshops here.

Throughout the shops, child factory workers remain a common sight. The Labor Department's widely publicized "Operation Child Watch" has failed to do anything to curb abuses. Federal officials claim they cannot find child-labor violations.

Violations are not hard to spot. On the same day young Guang was found in the Queens factory, Zhang Min, 14, was found working at a sewing machine stitching union labels on dresses in a sixth-floor loft factory in Manhattan. Nearby, in a fourth-floor factory on Forsyth Street where the main entrance is blocked with discarded boxes, Shu Homg, 14, was found behind a sewing machine.

"If you were concentrating on just child labor, you could find it every day," said Angelo Valdevitt, a state labor and wage inspector assigned to New York's sprawling garment district. State labor officials say that so far this year they have found 262 children working in the factories -- more than in any previous year.

Yet over the same period, federal labor officials say they were able to find only "in the vicinity of two or three" child workers.

"We were in a lot of places," contended Thomas Kelly, head of the federal wage and hour office in New York. "We just haven't found many child-labor violations."

The Labor Department's sputtering "crackdown" on sweatshops illustrates one major failure in the massive child-labor raids that began in March. There are others.

Far from the cities, on commercial farms, labor officials still struggle to get a handle on the hundreds of thousands of migrant children who work in the fields in some of the worst working conditions in the nation. On family farms, labor officials have yet to launch a proposed education program to try to stem an estimated 300 deaths and 23,000 child workplace injuries a year.

Yet, despite enforcement shortcomings that call into question the effectiveness of Operation Child Watch, Labor Department officials concluded the fourth and last child-labor "sweep" planned for 1990 declaring that evidence showed that illegal child work had begun to abate.

Critics are crying foul. "Child labor hasn't been dramatically reduced by the Labor Department, let alone eliminated," an angry Jeffrey Newman, head of the National Child Labor Committee, said. "It's disturbing to think that they haven't been able to find children in the sweatshops. And it certainly raises questions about their commitment."

Mr. Newman, who accompanied assistant Labor Secretary William C. Brooks on a tour of migrant farms in Ohio in August, is equally critical of government efforts in agriculture: "Nothing has changed the fact of child labor in the fields."

In recent interviews, Labor Department officials conceded that Operation Child Watch had not yet successfully reduced illegal child-labor cases in some areas. They insisted, however, that new child-labor crackdowns were being planned for 1991 and that major inroads had been achieved in curbing the most widespread of child-labor violations -- in restaurants, fast-food chains, grocery stores and other retail outlets.

On at least one level, the number of violations racked up by the federal crackdown on child-labor violators appears impressive. Since March, labor officials say they have found 25,886 minors working illegally in 2,200 businesses. The Labor Department has estimated the total penalties against those businesses at $8.6 -- million.

The announcement of the fines, and the unprecedented publication by the Labor Department of the names of many of the businesses cited for violations, was orchestrated to "get the message out" to employers that child-labor violations would not be tolerated.

Even critics admit that the tactic met with initial success, sharply cutting back on excessive hours that tens of thousands of teen-agers were working in fast-food restaurants and grocery stores.

But even here, they argue, success has been limited. In a September check of businesses that had been heavily fined earlier in the year for child-labor violations, the Labor Department said that 19 percent were again illegally employing children.

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