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Coalition Releases Model State Child-Labor Law

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A coalition of child advocates, labor unions, and education groups last week released a model state child-labor law aimed at protecting minors from exploitation and hazardous working conditions.

The model law, issued by the Child Labor Coalition, would limit the maximum number of hours that children could work, regardless of occupation, and establish a reporting system for child-labor-law violators.

The proposal also would require work permits for all working minors that would have to be signed by a parent, legal guardian, or school official. Parents or school officials could revoke the work permits if they determined that a child's academic performance or health was deteriorating due to the job.

Sponsors of the proposal, which is meant to serve as a guideline for states in updating their child-labor laws, said it was needed because of continuing abuses in the treatment of the estimated 5.5 million 12- to 17-year-olds who have jobs. In a 1990 U.S. Labor Department probe, sponsors noted, 41 percent of businesses investigated were found to be violating child-labor laws by employing minors illegally or asking them to work in dangerous conditions.

Each year 100,000 minors are injured and 100 die in the workplace, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The model law would require that minors be educated about labor history and their rights in the workplace, to insure they are "empowered and knowledgeable about laws protecting them,'' according to a summary.

The proposed law also would increase protections for children in migrant and seasonal farmwork by setting a minimum age of 14 for employment and prohibiting minors from "dangerous agricultural occupations and substances.'' Backers noted that federal law allows children as young as age 10 to hand-harvest crops, and that most states do not set maximum hours for agricultural employment for minors.

Members of the coalition described wide variations in current state child-labor laws. New York, Illinois, and New Hampshire have progressive measures already in force, they said, while Idaho has not revised its child-labor statute since 1911.

The group is targeting all the states, however.

"We aren't coming in with a club and saying that if you don't do this, than you don't have a child-labor law,'' said Darlene Moore of the National Consumers League. "But the federal government has been lax, and states have to take the initiative to protect working children.''

Ms. Moore accused the Bush Administration of opposing efforts to strenthen child-labor laws and pointed out that the U.S. General Accounting Office has reported that the number of federal child-labor compliance officers has decreased by 20 percent since 1988.

But Labor Department officials say they are cracking down on workplace violations. "The Secretary of Labor and the Administration have continued to make youth that work a number-one priority,'' said Jan Ellis, a spokeswoman for the department. "While it is true that the number of officers have decreased, our use of resources has substantially increased.''

"We take this problem seriously,'' Ms. Ellis added. "Through the use of strike forces and modern technology, we are able to be more effective in unveiling violators.''

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