Commentary: We must keep up our guard against abusive labor practices

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune l-r Lyle Jeffs, believed to be the FLDS bishop in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., and Nephi Jeffs appeared in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015. Both men, who are Warren Jeffs' brothers, have been served subpoenas in a U.S. Department of Labor lawsuit against Paragon Contractors, which provided labor for the Southern Utah Pecan Ranch near Hurricane. Both businesses are owned by members of the FLDS. Labor department investigators, according to court documents, believe that as many as 1,400 school-age children and their parents participated in the harvest.

I am proud of the investigative work and recent legal action taken by the United States Labor Department against certain business entities in Hildale, Utah, for their continued employment of children in construction jobs.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time these violations have occurred. This troubling finding highlights the current existence of illegal child labor in Utah as well as sheds light on the importance of upholding and enforcing labor laws meant to protect workers, children and their families.

Any case in which child labor is abused is alarming, but I commend state and federal investigators for pursuing action against these dangerous labor practices. I have personally seen the benefits and changes in employment laws in my lifetime that have protected workers and provided good, skilled jobs.

Now, in my capacity as president of the Utah AFL-CIO, I have the opportunity to advocate on behalf of organized labor here in Utah, working to ensure that our country’s proud labor heritage remains intact. Since the rise of the labor movement in the United States, unions have sought to secure rights for workers in their workplace, guarantee safe work environments and advocate on behalf of working families. The 21st-century workplace rights and protections — like the eight-hour day and laws covering safety and health on the job — have been won by the struggles and sacrifices of working women and men, empowered by the strength of solidarity.

To this day, local unions across the state and the Utah AFL-CIO strive to protect the interest of working people and their families. While this child labor abuse may be an isolated incident in just a single part of Utah, lawmakers, law enforcement and advocacy organizations need to continue to uphold and protect laws meant to benefit workers, employers and their families.

Every year during the Utah legislative session, members of local unions press lawmakers and hold accountable the Utah Legislature for the laws passed affecting Utah’s working class. These issues affect not only our union members, but every worker in the state. We are proud, even when our numbers are small, to be the voice of Utah’s working families in protecting our employment and labor rights.

During this most recent legislative session, we have urged lawmakers to uphold licensing to ensure that only qualified tradesmen and women may provide their services, sought maternity protections for working mothers and to promote the use of Utah labor and resources in major state development. Our goals align with the labor laws of Utah to provide a safe, secure and productive work environment and community.

I am proud of the men and women who go to work every day and then turn their efforts into making Utah a better place to live and work. Our imprint on this state extends from the earliest miners in Utah to the men and women who have contributed to helping build our cities and towns and to the educators who shape our children and youth. This has only been possible because of organized labor and the emphasis on passing and upholding meaningful labor and employment laws.

Any action against bad businesses, abusive employers and unlawful labor practices is supported by the Utah AFL-CIO to its fullest extent. The legacy of a safe and fair workplace is built upon the actions and sacrifices of working people who began their work here in Utah 100 years ago, a legacy that must be upheld today by the state’s business community, lawmakers and industry regulators.

Jeff Worthington, Fruit Heights, was a locomotive engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad for 39 years and became president of the Utah AFL-CIO on Jan. 1.