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30,000 Child Laborers

By Joe Lamport

Mohammed Abdullah began working at seven years old, carrying 75-pound loads. When he first arrived in New York City, he worked two shifts at gas stations in the Bronx, and moonlighted by selling food to fellow West Africans.

But Abdullah is not a poster child for child labor laws; quite the contrary. The Ghanaian immigrant who now owns two popular African restaurants in the Bronx is thankful for his childhood jobs, and he seems eager to offer his children, and those of his relatives, the same experience.

"My children, at nine years old, I’ll start giving some housework," Abdullah said. "My older teens — 16 or 17 — I let work in the restaurant."

Child labor laws, he believes, can stymie parental efforts to discipline their children, and his views are shared by other immigrant parents, as well as by their religious leaders.

Without experience working as a child, "when a kid gets older, he don’t get a job," said Luis Ortiz as he watched his 11-year-old son George arranging mangoes, oranges and apples for sale on fold-up tables. The boy helped his father flatten empty boxes and lean sticks of sugar cane against a wall. And he used a simple device to peel oranges as cars pulled up to his father’s roadside fruit stand. Without a job, Luis was saying, "he ends up lazy. And then they go to Manhattan and sell drugs."

Jeffrey Newman, president of the advocacy group the National Child Labor Committee, disagrees. "We as a society decided a hundred years ago that the importance of children having a childhood and not being exploited for work overrides the notion of work," he said. These children can and should learn the value of work, said Newman, but this can be done at school, through such activities as training programs.

Children under 14 are generally prohibited from working in New York. State and city labor investigators reported just 13 minors in violation of child labor laws in 2001. But Newman said the Department of Labor’s numbers reflect only actual citations issued.

At least 30,000 children are working illegally in the city, he said. As many as half of the child laborers are immigrant children who are particularly vulnerable, he added, because their parents usually are not aware of child labor laws.

This is not exactly hidden. When an accident at a Park Avenue construction site killed five workers last year, Newman noted that one of the witnesses quoted in newspaper accounts was a 16-year-old worker at the site who escaped uninjured. State and federal labor laws prohibit minors working in construction.

Immigrant children sometimes pose as young adults to find employment. At car washes, in restaurants and at construction sites, they work along side adult workers, who are sometimes older brothers or sisters who have helped them get hired. New York City’s garment district, where hidden sweatshops employ children, has particularly earned the attention of New York’s Department of Labor investigators, the department said.

Although as a child in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, Luis Ortiz helped his parents at home, he did not have to work, as some of his poorer friends did. But their experiences affected him nonetheless. "If a child is poor in Santo Domingo, he’s got a real problem," Ortiz said. "There the government doesn’t do anything for children. A child will work and work and maybe he’ll be fed for it and get very little money."

In New York City, the government is more generous, Ortiz said. Public education allows children to learn at school and public assistance for their parents means children do not have to work to help their families. But they risk losing discipline, he said. Ortiz said he was aware of child labor laws and was helping young George focus on school.

There is at least one way that immigrants might be indirectly responsible for the decline in child labor. Surveys conducted in July over the last two years by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that the proportion of children enrolling in summer school in the country continues to rise while the proportion employed in the work force continues to fall.

"The development of other activities is one of a number of factors that may be causing that trend," said Karen Kosanovich, an economist and child labor expert at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. "When I was a teen in the 1980s, we didn’t have soccer."

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