Exemptions to U.S. child labor law allow children in agriculture to work at 12—and sometimes younger—and these exemptions also allow teens to perform work known to be hazardous at 16 in agriculture when the same work can only be performed by adults.

More US Child Workers Die in Agriculture Than in Any Other Industry

New US Government Report Highlights Dangers Caused by Weak Child Labor Laws

By Margaret Wurth

 

More than half of work-related deaths among children in the US occur in agriculture, according to a new US government report published this week. This happens despite the fact that farms employ less than six percent of child workers, highlighting the devastating consequences of weak laws and regulations that don’t properly protect child farmworkers.

The report was prepared by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) at the request of congressional representatives Lucille Roybal-Allard from California and Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut.

My colleagues and I have interviewed hundreds of child farmworkers in the US in recent years. They’ve told us harrowing stories of working long hours in extreme heat, using sharp tools and heavy machinery, and climbing to dangerous heights with nothing to protect them from falling. Many are exposed to toxic pesticides, and on tobacco farms, children face the added risk of being exposed to nicotine, a neurotoxin.

Under federal labor law, children at the age of 12 can legally work unlimited hours on farms of any size with parental permission, as long as they don’t miss school. There is no minimum age for children to work on small farms or family farms. By law, children working in agriculture can do jobs at age 16 that health and safety experts deem particularly hazardous. In all other sectors, workers must be 18 to do hazardous work.  

The report clearly shows that these gaps in laws designed to protect young workers leave child farmworkers vulnerable to serious injuries and death.… Read the rest

New GAO Report Raises Concern over the Health and Safety of Child Farmworkers in the United States

 For immediate release: December 6, 2018

Contact: Reid Maki, Child Labor Coalition, (202) 207-2820, reidm@nclnet.org 

 

Washington, DC–In the wake of a new child labor report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) joins Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in voicing concern for the health and safety of 2.5 million U.S. children who work for wages, particularly those who toil in sectors like agriculture with elevated injury and fatality rates.

“The scourge of child labor still haunts America,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League and a co-chair of the CLC.

The new report “Working Children: Federal Injury Data and Compliance Strategies Could Be Strengthened” (November 2018) updates a 2002 GAO report on child labor in the United States. Earlier this week, the GAO issued the updated report, which had been requested by Reps. Roybal-Allard and DeLauro last year. Despite the difference of 16 years, the two reports reached similar conclusions, calling for better data. The new report also called for better coordination between the Wage and Hour Division and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—both entities at the Department of Labor—to enforce child labor laws.

The GAO found that while fewer than 5.5 percent of working children in the United States toiled on farms, the agricultural sector accounted for more than 50 percent of child labor fatalities. In the years 2003 to 2016, 237 children died in farm-related work accidents, representing four times the number of deaths of any other sector (construction and mining had 59 over the 14 year period).

“The GAO report’s findings are damning,” said Roybal-Allard and Rep. DeLauro in a joint statement. “This report confirms that child labor is contributing to a devastating amount of fatalities in the United States—disproportionately so in the agricultural sector. In that industry, kids are often exposes exposed to dangerous pesticides, heavy machinery, and extreme heat, and they are being killed as a result. That is unacceptable.”

The study examined recent data on children at work as well as child work fatalities and injuries and found significant data gaps and misaligned data. A data survey pilot project that sought improved data on workers ignored children entirely; it excluded “household children and working children on farms employing 10 or fewer workers,” noted the report’s authors, who concluded “DOL is missing opportunities to more accurately quantify injuries and illnesses to children, which could better inform its compliance and enforcement efforts.”

“The updated GAO report supports what child advocates have been seeing on the ground: the number of working children in the US has been on the rise since 2011, while child labor continues to decrease around the world,” says Norma Flores Lopez, chair of the CLC’s Domestic Issues Committee. “American working children are inadequately protected while working in dangerous—sometimes fatal—industries, including agriculture.  The U.S. Department of Labor must take immediate action to better protect our children by implementing the report’s recommendations. By providing equal protections for all working children, the US DOL can improve its effectiveness in enforcing child labor laws and keep children safe.”

“The Child Labor Coalition has worked for nearly 30 years to safeguard child workers on farms,” said Reid Maki, director of child labor advocacy for NCL and coordinator of the CLC.  “The United States has had glaringly weak agricultural child labor laws since the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act in the late 1930s. We allow children as young as 12 to work unlimited hours in agriculture, despite its known dangers.”

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American 12-Year-Olds Can’t Buy Cigarettes. Why Can They Work in Tobacco Fields?

[This op-ed appeared in The Guardian on June 28, 2018. You may view it there by clicking here.]

It’s no surprise that working in tobacco fields is dangerous. Smoking tobacco kills 6 to 7 million people a year, according to the World Health Organization. The same nicotine that makes tobacco so dangerous – and addictive – harms workers in tobacco fields. What is a surprise to many is that child workers are among those harmed and the United States allows 12-year-olds to work for wages in toxic tobacco fields where children are exposed to nicotine and toxic pesticides.

In the U.S., many teens who work in tobacco fields wear plastic garbage bags to try to avoid nicotine poisoning. [Photo courtesy Human Rights Watch]

When the seminal legislation the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938, it exempted agriculture from its extensive labor protections, including child labor. Most analysts agree that racism played a part in this decision – many agricultural workers were poor black people and the southern congressional leaders who controlled many committees had little interest in protecting them from labor abuses.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), whom we partner with on the US-based Child Labor Coalition, has confirmed that tobacco work is too dangerous for teen workers. Its 2014 report, Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming, featured the results of interviews of 140 child tobacco workers and found the majority had suffered symptoms that correlated with frequent bouts of “green tobacco sickness” – essentially nicotine poisoning.

The child laborers described nausea, dizziness, fatigue and other symptoms that left them feeling “like you’re going to die”. It’s clear that children absorb nicotine while they work from residue on tobacco leaves and from particulates in the air, but just how much is uncertain. Estimates differ from the equivalent of smoking six cigarettes a day to smoking over 30. The long-term impact of that absorption is not yet known.

In the US, a 12-year-old cannot legally walk into a store and buy cigarettes, but the law allows that same child to work in a tobacco field. A 16-year-old child tobacco worker told HRW that tobacco was “the hardest of all the crops we’ve worked in. You get tired. It takes the energy out of you. You get sick, but then you have to go right back to the tobacco the next day.”

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127 Groups Ask EPA Not to Reverse Ban on Pesticide Application by Children

Dear Administrator Pruitt:

The undersigned organizations write to oppose any changes by the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) to the requirements in the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard (“WPS”) and Certification of Pesticide Applicators rule (CPA).

Over 15 years ago, an EPA report stated that “pesticide poisoning in the United States remains under-recognized and under-treated…despite the ubiquity of pesticides in our homes, workplaces, and communities, and despite the considerable potential for pesticide-related illnesses and injury.” Farmworkers have one of the highest rates of chemical exposures among U.S. workers and they suffer acute pesticide poisoning every year through occupational exposures and pesticide drift. Studies have shown that agricultural workers suffer serious short- and long-term health effects from exposure to pesticides. The WPS and CPA rules provide vital protections from exposure to toxic pesticides for hired farmworkers, pesticide applicators, their families and the general public in communities across the United States. In revising these rules, the EPA recognized that the weight of evidence suggests that the new requirements, “will result in long-term health benefits to agricultural workers, pesticide handlers,” and “to certified and noncertified applicators, as well as to the public and the environment.”

After more than a decade of stakeholder input and analysis, the EPA revised the WPS and CPA rule to prevent injury and illness to the children, women and men who work around pesticides in agriculture, or who come into contact with pesticides in other settings. EPA found that the new safeguards are necessary to address the known dangers associated with pesticide use. The WPS applies to hired workers and pesticide handlers who labor in farms, fields, nurseries, greenhouses and forests. The CPA rule governs the training and certification requirements of workers who apply Restricted Use Pesticides (“RUPs”) in a variety of settings, including homes, schools, hospitals, as well as agricultural and industrial establishments. RUPs are some of the most toxic and dangerous pesticides on the market.

 

We are concerned that the EPA may weaken critical safeguards meant to protect agricultural workers, the public, and the environment. Among the many important provisions in the rules, the Agency has stated its intent to reconsider the minimum age protections that prohibit children from applying pesticides, the right of farmworkers to access pesticide application information through a designated representative, and protections for bystanders through “application exclusion zones,” which require that an applicator suspend pesticide application if “an unprotected/non-trained person” enters the area around the application equipment.

Undermining these important protections cannot be justified. We urge you to preserve the existing protections and to move forward with full implementation and enforcement.

Respectfully,

127 child, faith, agricultural, health, labor, human rights, consumer and environmental groups, including the Child Labor Coalition have signed the letter.

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