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Reports Spark Action On Child Labor Feds, Companies Vow To Crack Down On Exploitation

Federal officials and some leading U.S. companies, expressing concern about reports of children working illegally in American fields and factories, are promising to crack down.

Some companies have begun monitoring their suppliers more closely and are threatening to stop doing business with those who violate child labor laws. A U.S. senator is proposing higher fines for violators and increased funding for enforcement. And the U.S. Labor Department has announced a spring enforcement drive.

Labor Secretary Alexis Herman is asking the public to help.

“We will never have enough money or inspectors to find every person out to exploit a child to save a buck, to police every farm, every factory, every store or every shipment of imports to make sure that children are not being abused,” she said.

“We will need the public’s help to demand products free of child labor, to support companies that monitor their production lines, and to demand that children in fact have time to be children.”

The actions are in response to a series of Associated Press stories reporting that tens of thousands of children, some as young as 4, work illegally in the United States, often in exhausting and even hazardous jobs. The December stories traced products made by children from factories and farms to more than two dozen leading companies.

H.J. Heinz, Campbell Soup Co. and Newman’s Own all said they are changing their policies as a result of the reporting.

At Heinz, spokeswoman Debbie Magnus said the company had previously required vendors to sign a form guaranteeing compliance with child labor laws. She said that it is now clear that this is not sufficient, and Heinz is now planning to work directly with processors and growers “to truly guarantee compliance.”

At Campbell Soup, spokesman Kevin Lowery said the company is sending letters to all of its suppliers, whether identified in the series or not, to remind them that violating federal and state child labor laws could cost them their contracts.

“We’re telling thousands upon thousands of suppliers, ‘If you are not in adherence, you will be what we call a former supplier,”’ he said.

Newman’s Own said this week that chili growers, processors, labor contractor agencies and suppliers will all be required to sign contracts promising to comply with state and federal child labor laws. The company will require spot checks of the fields during harvest season, it said.

“If they are using children to pick the produce, we’re not going to buy it,” said Tom Indoe, chief operating officer of Newman’s Own.

Other companies named in the series saw no need to change their policies.

At Pillsbury, for example, spokesman Terry Thompson said it checked with farmers on whose property the AP saw, and photographed, children working and learned that none of them had been cited by the federal government for child labor violations in the last two years.

Therefore, he said, “we consider this case closed.”

The AP series reported that federal enforcement of child labor laws was weak and that almost nothing was being done to police child labor in agriculture.

Labor Secretary Herman acknowledged enforcement has been weak and promised swift improvements. She announced that in the spring, she will dispatch inspectors to check for illegal child labor in lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onion and garlic harvests. She said that she and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman will personally visit farms in 1998.

Herman also said she has asked department lawyers to review the federal hot-goods law to see how it might be used to seize products made with illegal child labor.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he will introduce legislation to double the Labor Department’s budget for enforcing federal child labor laws from $7.5 million to $15 million, increase penalties for violators and reduce the number of hours some children can work.

xxxx Changing policies H.J. Heinz, Campbell Soup Co. and Newman’s Own all said they are changing their policies as a result of the Associated Press reports on child labor.