By Kristina Cooke and Mica Rosenberg
(Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday introduced bipartisan legislation that would penalize employers who break child labor laws, after reports and federal investigations found a growing number of companies are employing child migrant workers in hazardous factory environments.
The bill, which has been introduced in the US House of Representatives, follows a similar Democrat-led initiative proposed in the Senate this month. The Labor Department has also taken steps to increase enforcement of child labor violations, asking Congress to increase penalties.
Reuters found in a series of stories published last year that migrant children, some as young as 12, made auto parts at suppliers to Korean auto giant Hyundai in Alabama and worked at chicken processing plants in the state. This year, The New York Times reported on migrant children in factories across the country that made products for major US brands.
The Department of Labor has seen a nearly 70% increase in child labor violations since 2018, including in hazardous occupations, with 835 companies finding violations of child labor laws in the last fiscal year. The department recently fined a cleaning company for employing more than 100 children on night shifts at meat processing plants in eight states. Some had been injured by dangerous chemicals.
Under current federal law, the maximum civil fine for a child labor violation is $15,138 per child. The House bill, introduced by Democratic Congresswoman Hillary Scholten of Michigan and Republican Congressman Nancy Mace of South Carolina, would increase the penalty to nearly 10 times that amount if passed, Scholten said.
The bill would ensure that authorities “have the tools and the teeth to enforce these laws,” she said, citing coverage of the issue by Reuters and the New York Times as spurring them to act on the matter. The Times also reported on children working in Scholten’s home state of Michigan.
“Children should go to school,” she said, “not factories with dangerous working conditions.”
This month, six Democratic senators led by US Senator Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, introduced a similar bill that would greatly increase civil fines and also impose harsher criminal penalties for repeat or intentional violations.
Scholten said she is coordinating with other lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Democratic-majority Senate members, including Schatz, in hopes of moving legislation on child labor forward.
US federal law prohibits persons under the age of 16 from working in most plant environments. Under-18s are barred from the most dangerous industrial jobs.
The US Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938, was designed in part to keep children out of hazardous workplaces. Following recent press scrutiny, labor experts and policymakers have questioned whether existing enforcement and penalties go far enough to deter employers.
Reuters first reported last July that children, mostly from Central America, were working at a Hyundai-owned subsidiary called SMART in Luverne, Alabama. In December, Reuters revealed the problem was much more widespread, reporting that local and state agencies were investigating whether at least 10 suppliers to Hyundai and its sister company Kia employed underage workers.
In February, 33 Democratic lawmakers led by Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee signed a letter to the Secretary of Labor calling for immediate action to eliminate child labor from Hyundai’s supply chain.
“These companies are obviously willing to take the risk of not getting caught when the stakes are as low as they are,” Kildee told Reuters in an interview this month. “We have to make it much more painful than it is now.”
(Reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Joshua Schneyer in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)
Source : news.yahoo.com