Proposed child labor enhancement bill would put migrant workers at risk, experts say

By: - November 14, 2023 3:56 pm
Pennsylvania Capitol Building. May 24, 2022. Harrisburg, Pa. (Photo by Amanda Berg, for the Capital-Star).

Pennsylvania Capitol Building on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Photo by Amanda Berg, for the Capital-Star).

A well-intentioned bill to enhance Pennsylvania’s child labor laws faced scrutiny from child welfare advocates and labor experts on Tuesday who said the legislation’s proposed reporting requirements would put victims of exploitation at greater risk.

At a House Labor & Industry Committee meeting on Tuesday morning, lawmakers heard critical feedback from experts on House Bill 1714, which was introduced by state Rep. Ryan Mackenzie (R-Lehigh) in September as a way to “strengthen” Pennsylvania’s child labor laws after data from the Shapiro administration indicated a surge in reported child labor law violations.

Pennsylvania sees ‘dramatic increase’ in reports of child labor law violations

Since January, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry has opened 403 child labor investigations compared to 107 cases during the same period last year, a 276% increase.

Similarly, the U.S. Department of Labor has also reported an increase in cases. In fiscal year 2023, DOL closed a total of 955 investigations of found child labor violations, a 14% increase from the previous year.

Of those reports, 5,792 minors were found to be employed in violation of current child labor laws. 

“We have seen an increase in child labor violations both across Pennsylvania and across the country,” Mackenzie said Tuesday. “I felt like it was incumbent on us to try to do something to address this issue.”

House Bill 1714 would bolster the Commonwealth’s Child Labor Act by mandating reporting across federal and state agencies, requiring an annual legislative report on child labor violations in Pennsylvania, and increasing the penalties for violating the act to a second-degree misdemeanor, Mackenzie told the committee. 

Mackenzie said he believes that a “major driver” of the increase in child labor law violations is due to the exploitation of unaccompanied migrant children, seeking asylum in the U.S. 

“These children are foreign nationals who crossed the border unaccompanied by any parent, guardian, or responsible adult,” Mackenzie said.“This is primarily a child welfare issue, and my bill is only one piece of the puzzle. Our goal is to protect all children, whether they are U.S. citizens or unaccompanied foreign nationals.”

But testifiers at Tuesday’s hearing said the bill doesn’t go far enough to protect children, and in particular, could further harm migrant workers and children through its intergovernmental reporting requirements.

“Many violations already go unreported and uninvestigated because workers fear losing their jobs or facing immigration-based retaliation,” said Mary Bellman, director of Labor Education at Penn State University’s School of Labor and Employment Relations. “If in fact, this kind of reporting would happen, adding ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] reporting will only exacerbate these fears and further reduce reporting, sending a signal to employers that they can violate the law with impunity.”

The reporting requirement, Bellman said, would “worsen the already considerable imbalance of power between migrant youth and corporations who avoid responsibility for these labor practices.”

She also added that corporations are usually undeterred by small fines and the loss of workers due to violations, knowing that they can “simply replace workers who are found to be employed illegally with other migrant youth who are compelled by economic desperation.” 

Bellman concluded that HB 1714 “does not alleviate” the hardships migrant workers and youth face. 

“To protect vulnerable child workers in Pennsylvania, we will need to change the incentives for employers who take advantage of this susceptible population,” Bellman said. 

Terri Ellen Gerstein, who serves as the director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at the Harvard Center for Labor and a Just Economy, called the bill’s approach “misguided.”

Gerstein said the reporting requirement “would basically create severe potential consequences for the children who are the victims or their parents and guardians and will create a situation in which no one is going to complain or report child labor.”

This, Gerstein said, will make it harder for government enforcement entities to do their jobs and create an environment in which more violations go undetected. 

Instead, Gerstein suggested a policy that would educate students about their rights as workers. 

“Another proposal is to incorporate child labor and other labor education in the high school curriculum,” Gerstein said, pointing to a recent California law creating a labor rights education for students. “There are a lot of studies showing that adults don’t know their rights at work, children even less so.”

Bellman agreed with Gerstein, adding that an education approach would benefit immigrant youth workers as well by helping them identify labor law violations. 

“We can equip schools and community organizations with information about child labor protections so that individuals know what to do when they suspect exploitation,” Bellman said. 

Angela Ferritto, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, told the committee that safe and healthy working conditions are “critically important for children, who are especially vulnerable to long-term harm from hazardous or exploitive work environments that damage their health, well-being or access to education.”

To provide enhanced protections to children, Ferritto urged lawmakers to “adequately” fund labor law enforcement agencies and adopt harsher penalties for violations of the Commonwealth’s existing labor laws. 

Ferritto suggested lawmakers consider policies that “center the protection of whistleblowers from retaliation for speaking up about child labor violations and allow victims of child labor to sue for damages.”

“And,” Ferritto said, “we should make sure that repeat offenders are faced with steeper penalties, not just financially but criminally for their continued violation of our laws and exploitation of minors.”

Despite disagreeing with the legislation’s approach to increasing child labor law violations, Gerstein pointed to the shared values of policymakers, experts and advocates. 

“We want children to get a good education. We want them to develop a work ethic and have work experience but to have good first job experiences, and we want them to be safe,” Gerstein said. “And so this is really a moment as someone said at the outset of the hearing. This is a moment where there’s a real possibility for bipartisan action. And I think it’s a real opportunity for Pennsylvania to lead in fighting oppressive child labor.”

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Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry.

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