Forceful pledges are welcome. But actions speak louder than words. North Carolina fines litterbugs more than it does employers who ignore child labor laws. That's the first thing that needs to change, and it should as soon as the next General Assembly convenes.
The second thing? The state's labor chief needs to prioritize enforcement of worker safety instead of cozying up to business.
With one notable exception, the state's top elected politicians vowed this week to strengthen government's effort to keep youths out of dangerous jobs and punish employers who flout the laws. An Observer investigation showed state and federal child labor enforcement was lax. It found evidence of employers in North Carolina – particularly in the poultry processing industry – ignoring child labor laws.
The idea of companies exploiting kids and putting them in danger is abhorrent. Yet put the blame where blame lies: Weak enforcement. The most a company in North Carolina can be fined for a violation is $250, and that has not changed in three decades. That's not a penalty, it's an open invitation to ignore the rules.
This week Gov.-elect Bev Perdue pledged tougher fines and enforcement. Current Gov. Mike Easley said he would instruct his staff to look into what could be done now. Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight questioned why fines were so low.
Out of kilter with that concern was newly-re-elected Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry, who claimed her department's authority to oversee large employers was limited, and said parents have the “ultimate responsibility” to determine what work their children perform.
Certainly parents bear a responsibility. But enforcing workplace safety is why we have a labor department isn't it? And don't we elect a commissioner such as Berry to oversee that work?
Berry should be leading the effort to strengthen penalties for child labor violations. But don't hold your breath. The policies of the labor department have been tilted toward business, not worker safety, under her leadership.
Ask the family of Nery Castaneda what that can mean. Castaneda was killed in 2007 at age 17 while operating a wood shredder at a Greensboro plant. The law said he was too young to do that work. No one was watching.
That record has captured the attention of the state's top politicians. Good. Now it's time for them to act and force crackdowns and tougher fines.