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Study: Illegal Child Labor in the United States
Sponsored by The Associated Press

III. Estimating Total Illegal Employment

Estimates of total illegal employment are summarized in Table 1, based on data from Appendix Tables A-1 to A-3. In an average week, 147,700 children and adolescents are estimated to be working illegally in the U.S, comprising 40,800 16- and 17-year-olds, 73,200 14- and 15-year-olds, and 33,700 children younger than age 14. Most of these youth - 145,200 - are working in non-agricultural employment, with 2,500 in agricultural employment. The total number estimated to have been employed illegally at some point during 1996 is 290,200, of whom 285,300 worked in non-agricultural industries and 4,900 worked in agriculture. In an average week over 2 million hours of illegal work are estimated to be performed by these youth, totaling 113 million hours in one year. Total compensation for these illegally-worked hours is $10.9 million per week or $566 million per year, with an average hourly pay of $5.00. The remainder of this section explains the derivation of these numbers.

a) Nonagricultural employment for 14- to 17-year-olds

The estimates for average weekly employment for 15- to 17-year-olds are based on 1995-97 CPS data, presented in greater detail in Appendix Table A-1. There it can be seen that even though hours standards in child labor laws are relaxed during the summer, the greater likelihood of work during the summer means that there are more in this age group working illegally in an average summer week (106,800) than in an average school week (82,000, in column 10). Of the 448,400 employed 15-year-olds, one-tenth (10.6%) are working in violations of child labor laws, compared to 1.0% of the 1.1 million employed 16-year-olds and 1.9% of the 1.5 million employed 17-year-olds (column10/column 7).

Table 1's estimate of illegal employment at some point during the year of 1996 (100,900 for 16- and 17-year-olds) is based on the March 1997 CPS, which asked questions about employment at any point last year. The method used to impute illegal employment is similar to that used in the U.S. GAO (1991) study of illegal employment of 15-year-olds in 1988, with several exceptions.{1} The estimate in Table A-1 that 47,400 15-year-olds are employed illegally in an average week is lower than the GAO study's estimate that 166,000 15-year-olds were illegally employed in 1988; the discrepancy is due in part to the GAO figure including any youth who is illegally employed at any point during the year, and in part to coding in that study that appears to overstate the number of youths working too many hours or in hazardous occupations (analyzed and discussed in Appendix B).

An estimated 71,500 14- and 15-year-olds do illegal non-agricultural work in an average week, while 126,300 did such work in 1996 (column 3). These estimates are derived by combining the data for 15-year-olds (Table A-1) with the ratio of 14-year-old illegal employment to 15-year-old illegal employment found in earlier CPS and NLS surveys summarized in Table A-2.{2} In both of these surveys the proportion of 14-year-olds working illegally was very close to 40% of the proportion of 15-year-olds working illegally; therefore the current figures for 15-year-olds from Table A-1 were multiplied by 1.4 for a survey-based estimate of 14- and 15-year-olds working illegally in non-agricultural employment. The 40% rate of illegal employment for 14-year-olds relative to 15-year-olds is very consistent with the relative rates of work-related injuries and deaths presented for studies 2, 3, 5, and 6 in Table A-3. The estimate presented in Table 1 also includes estimated sweatshop employment (to be discussed in section d), which is unlikely to be reported on surveys.

An estimated 3,406,800 14- to 17-year-olds are employed in an average week - derived by adding the 3,070,500 employed 15- to 17-year-olds (column 7 of Table A-1) to an estimate of 336,300 employed 14-year-olds based on the ratio of 14- to 15-year-old employment rates from Table A-2.{3}

b) Nonagricultural employment for children younger than age 14

There are no data sources that provide high-quality employment data for children younger than age 14, whose legal nonagricultural work outside of a family business is restricted to newspaper delivery, acting, and wreath-making. Several sources are used to impute the likely extent of illegal employment for these children, relying on comparisons of this group's overall employment rates and work-related injury and death rates to the rates of older youth. These sources are the NLS-Adolescent Health (NLS-AD) data summarized in Table A-2 and several others summarized in Table A-3.

In 1992-93 the number of work-related deaths among those younger than age 14 was 45.8% of the number for those age 14 or 15 (study 1, Table A-3). This number, which is consistent with the other studies with work information on those age 13 or less, is used to impute illegal employment for those younger than age 14 in Table 1. The relative rate of 45.8% is higher than for work-related deaths investigated by OSHA in 1984-87 (study 2), when only 3 deaths were found among 12- and 13-year-olds compared to 11 deaths for 14- and 15-year-olds. It is likewise higher than the 1980 ratio of workers compensation claims by 13-year-olds relative to that of 14- and 15-year-olds, as found in study 3, and the 1987-90 New Hampshire ratio of employment for 12- and 13-year-olds relative to that of 14- and 15-year-olds, as found in study 4. These latter three studies did not include younger children, which may account for the higher relative rate in the first study. It is consistent with the patterns found in the NLS-AD for work by 12- and 13-year-olds (Table A-2): these youth were about one-third as likely as 14- and 15-year-olds to report working more than 18 hours in a typical school week, and 44% as likely to report working more than 40 hours in a typical summer week.

Given that the relative rates are lower in these latter four studies that exclude children younger than 12, the higher 46% relative rate from study 1 of Table A-3 is multiplied by the estimated 71,500 illegally employed 14- and 15-year-olds in order to impute illegal employment for children younger than age 14. It must certainly be recognized, however, that the overall estimate of 32,900 provides only a rough approximation for illegal nonagricultural employment of children younger than age 14Ñbetter estimates await better datasets.

Just as it is difficult to estimate illegal employment of youths under age 14, it is difficult to estimate total employment for this group. From the NLS-AD data reported in Table A-2, the employment rate of 12- and 13-year-olds is close to 85% of the employment rate of 14- and 15-year-olds during the school year, and 90% during the summer. Applied to the data presented in Table A-1, an estimated 683,000 12- and 13-year-olds are employed in an average week. Added to the data for older youths, this indicates that just over four million (4,089,800) youths age 12-17 are employed in an average week. There are no good data, however, for estimating total employment of those under age 12.{4}

c) Agricultural employment

Child labor laws for agricultural employment are much less stringent than for nonagricultural employment. The most important restrictions are that, with some exceptions, children under age 16 who do not work on their familyÕs farm are not permitted to operate power-driven machinery or to work with certain pesticides. The CPS provides information on whether a person works as a farmer or farm worker, but no information on work with power-driven machinery or pesticides. From the CPS, an estimated 229,600 youth age 14-17 work in agriculture at some point during a year, while 147,000 do so in an average week. The only other comprehensive data on agricultural workers come from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), which collects a variety of information on both migrant and non-migrant crop workers. From NAWS it is estimated that 123,000 youth age 14-17 work in crop agriculture in the course of a year (slightly higher than the 109,000 estimated to work in crop agriculture from CPS data).{5} Like the CPS, however, NAWS contains no information on which youths appear to be working under illegal conditions.

To estimate the number of youths working under illegal conditions, this report uses a breakdown by agricultural status of detected violations of child labor laws. Based on data from the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor, detected violations in agriculture were 1.7% of all detected violations over the 1987-91 period (U.S. GAO, 1992). Applied to Table 1Õs estimate of 285,300 minors working illegally in nonagricultural businesses, this ratio would indicate that approximately 4,900 minors work under illegal conditions in agricultural jobs in the course of a year (representing 4.0% of the 123,000 14- to 17-year-olds in crop agriculture, where illegal work with pesticides and power-driven machinery is most likely to occur{6}). This assumes that enforcement activity is similar for agricultural and nonagricultural jobs, which may not be accurate. Given, however, the lenient standards for farm labor and the exceptions for work with one's parents, the magnitude of this estimate is reasonable and it is used in the absence of better information.

d) Sweatshop and home-based work

Children employed in "sweatshops" - defined as businesses that regularly violate laws regarding safety and health, wages, or child labor - may not be fully accounted for in the survey data, leading to an underestimate of the overall number of children employed illegally. Sweatshops are thought to be concentrated in the apparel, restaurant, and meat processing industries (U.S. GAO, 1990a). Arriving at estimates of employeesÑparticularly childrenÑin sweatshops is complicated by problems in inspection (not enough inspectors, even fewer bilingual inspectors, and the small size of many sweatshops). Of 7,000 apparel firms with a total of 105,000 employees in New York City, about 4,500 firms employing 50,000 workers are estimated to be sweatshops. An investigation of 339, or 5%, of the apparel firms found a total of 130 minors employed in violation of child labor laws (U.S. GAO, 1989). While it is not clear that this was a random sample (perhaps targeted to the most likely offenders), this suggests that there are about 2,600 minors employed illegally in New York City apparel firms. In comparison, CPS data indicate about 1,000 15- to 17-year-olds employed in the New York City apparel industry, none of whom are coded as working illegally. The CPS appears to miss much sweatshop employment (as would most surveys, due to insufficient coverage of this population, problems with measuring illegal conditions, or difficulties with honest reporting). Therefore the total number of children working illegally in U.S. apparel sweatshops is roughly estimated by taking the 2,600 number for New York and assuming that this bears the same proportion to total U.S. children working illegally in apparel sweatshops as does the number of urban non-citizen apparel workers in New York relative to the rest of the country (since the problem is concentrated in this population). Based on this, it is estimated that 7,400 minors are working illegally in U.S. apparel sweatshops in an average week, and 13,100 in a year, which are added to the survey-based numbers in Table 1.{7}

The other two industries in which sweatshops are thought to be a problem are the meat processing and restaurant industries. Legal and illegal immigrants constitute the primary workforce for hazardous jobs that may often violate labor laws, particularly in meat processing (Stanley, 1992; U.S. News and World Report, 1996; Cooper, 1997) where about 96,000 non-citizen immigrants represent 20% of total employment (based on CPS data). The CPS numbers in Table A-1 include some youths coded as working in violation of child labor laws in meat processing and restaurants,{8} but there are no data available to make a reasonable estimate of how many more youths may be working illegally in sweatshop conditions and not reflected in survey data (due to coverage, measurement, or reporting problems). Differences in the type and location of work make it risky to generalize from the apparel industry to these other industries. Therefore no estimate is added on top of the survey numbers to reflect illegal child labor in non-apparel sweatshops - the true number could be in the hundreds or thousands. Better information may allow reasonable estimates for non-apparel sweatshops and improve the estimate for apparel sweatshops.

Surveys may also undercount illegal home-based work, in which employees who do work at home may have their children do some of the work. No good estimates exist on the extent of this problem. The May, 1991 CPS survey asked respondents about home-based work, from which it was estimated that 7.4 million people do job-related work at home for pay. Most of these people, however, are self-employed, and about half have managerial and professional jobs. When restricted to non-managerial and non-professional employees in manufacturing firms, about 105,000 are estimated to do some work at home for pay, of whom 39,000 have a total of 68,000 children between the ages of 5 and 14 in the household.{9} The problem may be particularly likely among apparel workers, of whom an estimated 7,900 do work at home and have 11,600 children age 5-14 in their households. While these numbers establish upper bounds for the number of children who may do home-based work for these adults, there is no reliable means to determine whether the best number is in the hundreds or thousands. If, say, 5% of the children in these households regularly and substantially do some of the adultÕs home-based work, this would imply an additional 3,400 children who may be working in violation of child labor laws. The true percentage, however, could as easily be 0.2% or 20% of the 68,000 children in these households. With an upper bound but no further information on which to base an estimate, the approach taken here is not to include these children in the overall estimates.


{1} As in the GAO study, here 15- to 17-year-olds are coded as working illegally if they had worked in a hazardous occupation in the previous year, and 15-year-olds are coded as working illegally if they reported usual work hours per week exceeding 40. The GAO study also coded 15-year-olds as working illegally if their reported usual work hours exceeded 18 and they reported 16 or more weeks of work (so that some were during school weeks), but here the weeks standard is increased to 32 so that the usual hours would apply to school weeks. Unlike the GAO study, these estimates include violations of state child labor laws, and use occupation rather than industry codes to determine illegal occupations. See a comparison and discussion in Appendix B. The numbers were adjusted upward for illegal agricultural and sweatshop employment, based on information presented in sections c and d.

{2} The higher estimated employment rates for 14- and 15-year-olds in the NLS compared to the CPS is consistent with other comparisons of cross-sectional and longitudinal youth employment data (Freeman and Medoff, 1982).

{3} 14-year-olds are 75% as likely as 15-year-olds to be employed (Table A-2, column 2, CPS data), and 448,400 15-year-olds are employed in an average week (Table A-1, column 7), so 14-year-old employment is estimated as .75*448,400=336,300.

{4} The injury data in Table A-3 can be used for estimating illegal employment (which is much more likely than legal employment to be hazardous) of all those under age 14, but cannot be reasonably used to estimate the mostly non-hazardous legal employment of children of this age.

{5} The NAWS estimate is provided by Rick Mines, U.S. Department of Labor. This is slightly higher than the CPS estimate for 1996 (based on the March 1997 CPS, with 14-year-old employment imputed based on 1980Õs CPS data) probably because NAWS is a field-based survey that is more likely to capture both legal and illegal migrant workers.

{6} The agricultural child labor laws only cover those under age 16, so the 4,900 estimate is likely to be a higher percentage of this group. While the NAWS sample does not permit a further breakdown by age, CPS data indicate that approximately 106,400 14- and 15-year-olds work in agriculture, and 46,100 in crop agriculture, in the course of a year. There are no reliable data for the number of child agricultural workers under age 14, so the overall percentage of agricultural workers under age 16 who work in violation of agricultural child labor laws cannot be reasonably estimated.

{7} Of the 178,000 urban non-citizens working in the apparel industry, about one-third are in New York (35.2%) while one-third are in Los Angeles (33.6%, based on CPS data); illegal child labor in apparel sweatshops across the U.S. is therefore estimated as 2600/.352=7386. (I am indebted to Alan Krueger and Lisa Schur for development of this approach. The estimate is similar when using all immigrants, not just non-citizens. While data are not available on illegal immigrants, who are often employed in apparel sweatshops, this approach will produce an unbiased estimate as long as the ratio of illegal to legal immigrants is the same in New York and non-New York apparel sweatshops.)


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