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Auditors Cite Alarming Rise In Child-Labor Violations

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Washington--Violations of child-labor laws have increased at an alarming rate during the past six years, an analyst with the General Accounting Office last week told participants at a conference focusing on the exploitation of child workers.

William J. Gainer, the GAO's director of education and employment issues, said data from the Department of Labor indicate that the number of youths under age 18 working in violation of child-labor laws has increased by 150 percent since 1983.

The actual number of children working illegally may be even higher, added Mr. Gainer, who based his remarks on findings contained in two previously published GAO reports as well as in a third report to be released later this year.

Violations 'Growing Rapidly'

"No one knows exactly how many of our nation's reported 4 million young workers are employed in sweatshops or other businesses that exploit minors," he said. "But we do know that the number of detected child-labor violations is growing rapidly."

Mr. Gainer's remarks came during a forum on child-labor problems in both the United States and abroad. The forum was sponsored by the Congressional Working Group on International Labor Rights.

The new GAO report relies on data from the Labor Department's wage and hour division and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as well as on interviews with more than 100 federal and state officials responsible for enforcing laws that govern working conditions.

Records of federal wage and hour violations show that the number of youths under age 18 working in violation of child-labor laws has increased from 9,000 in fiscal 1983 to 22,500 in fiscal 1989.

Types of Violations

Generally, child-labor violations are divided into three types:

Scheduling employees under age 16 to work in violation of restrictions on when and how much time they can work.

Employing workers under the minimum employment age, which is generally 14.

Allowing minors to work in jobs, or with certain equipment, considered by the Labor Department to be unsafe for young workers.

Retail Trade Most Cited

Of the violations recorded in fiscal 1989, 15,523 were related to work hours, 6,542 were instances in which workers under age 18 operated hazardous equipment, and the rest were related to the employment of under-age workers.

The retail-trade industry was the sector most often cited for violations during the 1987 and 1988 fiscal years, followed by the manufacturing and service industries.

Grocery stores and fast-food chains are the largest employers of minors, Mr. Gainer said, adding that these businesses' hours often extend beyond those allowed for children under 16.

Grocery stores and fast-food chains were most likely to commit violations related to hazardous equipment, allowing young workers to operate paper-bailing machines, trash compactors, and meat slicers.

During the 1987 and 1988 fiscal years, osha statistics show that 59 youths were killed in workplace accidents. Mr. Gainer said 37 of the 59 employers were fined a total of $27,364, for an average penalty of $740.

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