The 300,000 – 400,000 children who labor in the fields here in our country, typically
work 10 hours a day (more during harvest), five to seven days a week. They earn much less than the minimum wage,
and their hours are often underreported by their supervisors.
The Centers for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
(NIOSH), claims that farm labor is the most dangerous possible work for children. Not
only are they exposed to pesticides and chemical fertilizers known to be dangerous, they
are also at high risk for injury and other illnesses. They often don’t have adequate water
and toilets available in the fields, and girls are at great risk for sexual abuse. Children
who labor in the fields are four times more likely to die than children in other jobs!
In the 1930s, when children regularly worked in the fields, the Fair Labor Standards Act
(FLSA) was created, but it is sorely in need of overhaul. There are no limits on how
many hours children may work in agriculture. While they are not allowed to work during
school hours, child farmworkers drop out of school at a very high rate, often because
their families are financially destitute. The law says that children under 12 are not
to work in the fields; this is often disregarded.
The Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (HR3564) was introduced by Lucille
Roybal-Allard (D-CA) in the House of Representatives in September of last year, to
make labor laws for child farmerworkers as strict as those for other occupations for
children, and would require the Labor Department to gather better data on the number of
child laborers and their injuries. It has 87 cosponsors and the approval of 80 labor and
human rights organizations. Neither the American Farm Bureau, comprised of 2800 farm
organizations nor the Republicans have lent any support for this bill.
However, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis has said in response to the report, “We simply
cannot — and this administration will not – stand by while youngsters working on farms
are robbed of their childhood.” The Labor Department has added on 250 new field
investigators and plans to add more.
The US Department of Agriculture has spoken up saying, “Farmers and ranchers, most of
whom are law abiding citizens, should not have their efforts to provide a safe and
abundant supply of food and fiber tainted by those taking advantage of the most
vulnerable in our society.” They are in support of the Roybal-Allard bill.
The EPA has announced that it is working to strengthen the assessment of pesticide
health risks and plans to have new worker protection standards by 2012.
Here’s the irony: Zama Coursen-Neff, deputy director of the Children’s Rights Division at
HRW commented, “The United States spends over $25 million a year – more than all
other countries combined – to eliminate child labor abroad, yet is tolerating exploitative
child labor in its own backyard.”
The majority of child laborers in the US are children of color. They deserve the same
opportunities for an education as any other children. These vulnerable children deserve to be safe and
attending school. Take action and vote for better conditions for child laborers.