ILLEGAL CHILD LABOR COMES BACK In sweatshops, farm fields, and fast-food outlets, kids are being exploited and exposed to dangers. A new worry, door-to-door candy selling, sounds harmless but isn't.
By Brian Dumaine REPORTER ASSOCIATE Rahul Jacob

(FORTUNE Magazine) – LIKE tuberculosis and measles, child labor is making a comeback in the U.S. From New York to California, employers are breaking the law by hiring children of 7 to 17 who put in long, hard hours and often work in dangerous conditions. Some examples:

-- In many states, small fly-by-night candy distributors are hiring young children to sell boxes of chocolates door-to-door, late at night and unsupervised, in strange neighborhoods. In Washington State, one 11-year-old girl selling candy alone at 10 p.m. on a school night, 160 miles from home, was struck and killed by a passing car.

-- In New York City and Los Angeles, immigrant children who should be in school work in garment industry sweatshops that are dirty, crowded, and often contain hazards like locked fire doors.

-- In the Southeast, the Labor Department is investigating Food Lion, the fast-growing supermarket chain, for hundreds of possible labor violations, most of them safety related. Underage children allegedly used meat-cutting machines and paper-box bailers -- machines that compact and crush cardboard cartons and are known to kill.

-- In California and Texas -- along the Mexican border -- and in south Florida, young children still work beside their parents for up to 12 hours a day as migrant farmers. As a 13-year-old, Mexican-American Augustino Nieves started picking olives and strawberries in California. He missed months of school that year, working from 6:30 a.m. until 8 p.m., with a 20-minute lunch break, six days a week, at less than the minimum wage.

-- In Miami the Labor Department last December fined Burger King $500,000 -- the largest child labor penalty in history -- for letting 14- and 15-year- olds work late into the night on school days. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 prohibits kids that age from being on the job later than 7 p.m. Over the past ten years, U.S. government statistics show a marked rise in child labor violations. In 1992 the Labor Department logged 19,443 such offenses, about twice the 1980 level. Most involved kids working too late on school nights in grocery stores and fast-food restaurants or using hazardous equipment like meat saws and slicers. Says California state labor commissioner Victoria Bradshaw: ''You have a lot of kids in the work force, and they don't know they're entitled to certain rights.'' Why is this problem growing again? Peter Rachleff, an associate professor at Minnesota's Macalester College and a specialist in the history of child labor, links its reappearance to ''the overall deterioration of working-class life in America.'' More middle-class families, feeling the jobs pinch, are encouraging their kids to work to supplement family income. Child labor also tends to increase during periods of heavy immigration. In the past decade the number of immigrants -- both legal and illegal -- has surged. To scrape by, many ask even very young children to help out. Says New York State labor commissioner John Hudacs: ''Whenever you have immigrants who don't speak the language and need to make ends meet, employers will take advantage of them.'' Under federal law it is illegal for anyone under 18 to work in manufacturing or construction or to operate most kinds of power tools. With a few exceptions, like paper routes, acting, and family farm work, it is illegal for anyone under 14 to be employed, period. On school days, 14- and 15-year-olds can't work before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. Child labor laws, however, rarely are enforced. In 1980 the U.S. Labor Department had 1,059 investigators. Today, after several budget cuts, it deploys only 833 agents to enforce not only the child labor laws but a dozen other major regulations, among them minimum wage laws. According to the National Safe Workplace Institute, a Chicago nonprofit group funded by foundations and corporations, a business can expect a visit by a federal labor inspector once every 50 years.

On the state level, the situation isn't much better. New York, Washington, Maine, and California have passed laws that further restrict the hours teens can work during the school year or ban certain employment such as hospital jobs that might expose kids to dangerous medical waste. But three states -- Colorado, Kansas, and Mississippi -- have no state child labor laws at all. Maryland has a set of progressive child labor laws on the books but was forced by budget problems to fire all its investigators 18 months ago. For middle-class suburban families the most serious child labor problem in America may be excessive hours in the fast-food industry. Says William Brooks, a former Assistant Secretary of Labor who is now a GM executive: ''The fast- food joints are the coal mines of the 1990s.'' Though some work after school is laudable, too many kids get carried away and shortchange what should be their first priority -- getting the best education (see box). The Japanese, who outscore American teens on standardized math and science tests -- and who are no slouches when it comes to working hard as adults -- take a completely different approach. While many American teens work during the school year, very few Japanese kids do. But as an immediate threat to a child's safety and well-being, fast-food work is a far less pressing concern. What is rising rapidly to the top of the list in New York, California, Washington, Texas, and other states is a new kind of child labor abuse -- door-to-door candy selling. Says Bob Smith, chief state labor investigator for northern California: ''We have nine investigations going in my region, and we haven't even scratched the surface.'' DON'T CONFUSE these operations with selling Girl Scout cookies. Girl Scouts sell in their own neighborhoods, to people they know, and get driven around by parents. But in the typical candy-selling scam, vans operated by a host of small, shady operators pick up children, some as young as 7, after school and drive them to strange neighborhoods and distant towns to sell their wares until late at night. Some are not ideal employers. Gerald Winters, also known as the Candy King, is serving a 34-year sentence in federal prison for, among other things, beating one rival with a baseball bat and having another's van set on fire. Brandy Woodrow, 13, of Vallejo, California, who recently stopped door-to- door selling, describes the work in two words: ''Real scary.'' A confident and sassy girl with a beehive hairdo, jeans, lots of jewelry, and a bright maroon and green jacket -- in other words a typical teen -- Brandy started selling candy when she was 11. She recounts her experience:

''We used to sell every day. The van would pick me up at 3:30 and I'd work until 10 P.M. on weekdays and until midnight on weekends. The driver would have 20 kids in his van. We'd usually sit on the floor; there were no seat belts. First we'd sell in Vallejo, and then we went all over. One time we were in Livermore, 50 miles away, and the van broke down. I didn't get home until 3:30 in the morning. I sold the candy for $5 a box and kept $1 for myself. On a good night I could sell ten boxes. Sometimes the kids drank in the van or used drugs. One kid stole some tools from a house and sold them to the driver. One time the driver left a boy in Napa, and he had to walk 15 miles home at night. The driver just forgot him. Another night I waited for two hours on the corner to get picked up. I'd like to sell candy again, but only if it were safer.''

''These candy companies,'' says officer Mary Pedretti of the Vallejo police department, ''break just about every child labor law on the books.'' They start by hiring underage kids, who are then allowed to work the streets alone, when by California law they have to work in pairs. Usually the children are taught to lie. Youngsters selling in New York City's Rockefeller Center claim to be raising money for a charity, when they're not. In California the line is they're selling to help inner-city kids escape drugs and crime. For example, John, 13, a door-to-door seller in California, told FORTUNE that he was raising money for his school baseball team, when in fact he was selling for a local business. Says William Moffett, a retired career counselor for the Vallejo school system who's now dedicating much of his time to shutting down the candy sellers: ''The lesson the kids learn about work is, the better you lie, the more money you make.'' Rising immigration may be fueling an increase in child labor abuse in a more traditional problem area -- garment industry sweatshops. In the 1980s most major American apparel manufacturers shifted work to the Third World, chasing dollars-a-day wages. To stay competitive, some small U.S. operators started hiring immigrant children at below the minimum wage. Says Tom Glubiak, head of New York State's garment industry task force, which is responsible for investigating child labor abuses: ''These employers love kids because they tend to be willing workers. They don't complain, and they think they're making a lot of money when they're not.'' FOR EVERY offending employer who is discovered, doubtless scores more go undetected. On a recent Tuesday, FORTUNE, accompanying a team of state labor inspectors, found three minors working illegally in garment factories in Manhattan. In one sweatshop in Chinatown, Gao and Ying, two girls fresh off the boat from Fukien, China, and speaking no English, worked the sewing machines. The factory, in a ramshackle building, was hot and crowded, with garbage on the floor and old electrical wires hanging from the ceiling. One of the proprietors, reacting to this raid like Bruce Lee on angel dust, claimed the girls were 20 and then paced up and down the floor, screaming at the inspectors, ''I'll kill you, I'll kill you.'' Under New York law, the owner had ten days to supply proof of age or stop employing the girls. Andy Chan, one of the investigators, believes the girls were no more than 14 or 15 and says the business never got back to him with the proper documentation. The girls have disappeared, probably to another of the 1,500 sweatshops in the city.

At another clothing factory, in midtown Manhattan, a shy Mexican girl named Faviola Flores, with black hair and a puffy white blouse, was hiding from investigators in a clothes rack. Though the seamstress claimed she was 20, investigators assume she wasn't much more than 15. Faviola lives in New York City with her three sisters and sends money back to her brother in Mexico. When asked whether she would rather be at the factory than in school, she replied poignantly, ''I don't like working here, but I have no choice.'' Children also continue to labor illegally on farms in Texas, California, and Florida. Among migrant families, it's still natural to pull young teenagers out of school to lend a hand during harvest. And since most families lack any kind of affordable day care, they sometimes bring even very young children to the fields. Migrant farm workers are paid by the box -- be it carrots, grapes, or cherries -- so every little hand helps. WHILE THIS KIND of exploitation of young kids should certainly be stopped, sometimes enforcement of the child labor laws governing agriculture can seem capricious, especially when it involves older teens. In California's Imperial Valley, a rich farmland just north of the Mexican border, FORTUNE tagged along as state and federal inspectors found three 17-year-old boys picking cauliflower -- a backbreaking task. They would typically start at 7 a.m. and work until dusk, bending over and over again, cutting the cauliflower with a sharp knife and dropping it in a box on a moving tractor. Their only respite: three ten-minute breaks a day. Under California law, the three were working illegally because they didn't have a work permit from a school. But in a Kafkaesque twist, what these teenagers were doing was perfectly legal under federal law, which stops policing teens once they're 16. While the California inspector was telling the employer he had to fire the kids, the federal inspector merely stood by and cracked, ''The state is doing nothing more than harassing these boys.'' He had a point. One, Eduardo Cardenas, was a strong, strapping fellow, who had left 11 siblings behind in Mexico to come to the U.S. to improve his lot in life. The other, Ivan Flores, was married and had a young daughter. ''So I can't work now?'' he asked angrily. ''That can't help anything.'' The National Safe Workplace Institute estimates that 300 children are killed and 70,000 injured every year on the job. One of the most dangerous areas for minors is construction, where it's illegal for anyone under 18 to work. In the Bronx last year, two 14-year-old boys, employed by a contractor to paint the inside of a huge storage tank, were overcome by solvent fumes and suffered permanent brain damage. In California a boy, 13, working for a Santa Barbara builder was doing chin-ups on a steel boom that rested precariously on a pile of wood. The boom fell over, crushing and killing him. Danger lurks in the service trades as well. In 1991, Charles Kenney, 16 at the time, was working for an ice cream distributor in New York City. While climbing a 12-foot-high pile of boxes in a freezer -- a prohibited area for minors -- he slipped, caught his ring on the edge of a shelf, and lost his finger. In 1988, Michael Hucorne, then 17, was working at a Weis supermarket in Pennsylvania. He tried to reach into a bailer -- a machine that crushes and binds paper boxes and cartons and is, again, off-limits for minors -- to free some jammed material and got caught. The machine crushed his body for at least 30 minutes before he suffocated. In its defense, Weis Markets says that no one ever proved in court that Michael was killed ''in the act of doing his job.'' Currently the Labor Department is investigating a huge case involving the Food Lion supermarket chain, headquartered in Salisbury, North Carolina. The potential violation: Hundreds of teens employed by Food Lion may have used meat-cutting saws as well as paper-box bailers -- both of which are prohibited by federal law for kids under 18. As far as anyone knows, no one at Food Lion has yet been hurt by these machines. The company claims that the government's charges involve technical violations. For instance, it insists that teenage workers simply threw cardboard boxes into bailers that weren't operating and they were therefore in no danger. But some adult Food Lion employees, both past and present, insist that it was common practice for minors to operate bailers and use meat saws. True, the employees who make these charges are all also party to a lawsuit against the supermarket chain for not paying them adequate overtime. But while one might be dubious about the testimony of an ex-employee suing his former company, FORTUNE spoke with six former or current employees -- all of whom said they often observed underage workers violating the safety laws. As these people tell it, Food Lion routinely broke child labor laws to save money. The company, for example, limited the number of hours its meat cutters could work per week to avoid paying overtime. Meat cutters usually left the market by 6 p.m., so if a customer wanted a cut of meat, the store manager would sometimes tell his 16- and 17-year-old grocery baggers to prepare the order. Says Kim Caudill, a meat cutter at Food Lion for six years before he quit last January: ''It was common as dirt for kids to use the meat-slicing equipment. If the customer asked for a certain cut of meat and a bagger was around, they would use whatever equipment was necessary, despite signs prohibiting children under the age of 18 from going anywhere near the machines.'' The company denies using minors to cut meat. Joe Baker, who is still a market manager at a Food Lion store in Hickory, North Carolina, claims that until Labor Department investigators began looking into child labor violations last fall, it was quite common for 16- and 17- year-old bag boys to use the paper-box bailer in his store. Baker's sister- in-law, Lisa Baker, 22, who in 1987 also worked at the Hickory Food Lion, says that when she was 16, some managers told her it was part of her duty to put paper boxes into a bailer, and she did so daily, in clear violation of the rules. ''I got in trouble,'' she says, ''if I didn't do it.''

What can be done to stem this new tide of child labor violations? The last thing most businesses want, and rightly so, is a new army of investigators harassing law-abiding employers. Besides, in an era of limited budgets, that's unlikely anyway. Smarter enforcement offers a better alternative. Working with the states, Washington could, for instance, create task forces that concentrate on specific areas where abuses are known to be most egregious. One model might be New York State's garment industry task force, whose 24 investigators root out violators in New York City sweatshops. California, with its new TIPP program, is taking a cross-agency approach, using state tax filings and business licensing and registration records to pinpoint employers with a history of skirting the rules. These companies, state officials have found, are the most likely child labor lawbreakers. Education helps too. Parents, teachers, employers, and children need to be made better aware of the child labor laws. High-profile cases like those the Labor Department has brought against nationally known companies such as Burger King go a long way in sending a message to all employers to obey the law. Above all, in today's global economy no wealthy nation can expect to remain well-off unless it keeps stressing to all its children that ultimately how well you prepare yourself for tomorrow's workplace matters more than how much you work while doing so.