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.

The $64,000 Question: How Can Consumers Avoid Supporting Companies that Exploit Farmworkers

Reid Maki, Coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition

“Which companies are good? Which companies can I safely buy from without risk that their products are made by child labor or forced labor?” These are questions you get asked all the time when you work for a consumer group like the National Consumers League or if you help run an anti-child labor gorganization like the Child Labor Coalition (CLC). We would love to be able to answer these questions, but without constant monitoring, which is extraordinarily expensive and challenging, it’s extremely difficult to say which companies are doing a good job rooting out problems in their supply chains.

A little help may be coming, however. Legislation in the Washington State Assembly would require large companies to report out on labor abuses in their agricultural supply chains.

It’s well known that farm labor is one of the lowest paid, must vulnerable work forces in the U.S. Most farmers are great people. We don’t doubt that, but agricultural labor has many peculiarities which contribute to making labor exploitation more common. Much of farm labor is immigrant–a significant portion of the labor force are undocumented immigrants. “Farm workers risk being seen as disposable and invisible, stripped of their human dignity and worth,” said Indira Trejo, who works for the United Farm Workers, the legendary farmworker union that has worked to reduce labor exploitation in the fields.

On top of the increased vulnerability that comes with being an immigrant, who may have language-barrier issues, farmworkers are often hired by independent contractors—some are scrupulous and some aren’t–but the use of these crew leaders can create an extra employment layer that may make exploitation more common.

Concerned about the exploitation of farmworkers, Washington State Senator Rebecca Saldana (D-Seattle) has introduced Senate Bill 5693, the “Transparency in Agricultural Supply Chains Act. The bill applies to companies with gross global receipts of $200 million and asks them to disclose any violations of employment-related laws, including slavery, peonage (debt bondage), and human trafficking. “Consumers in our state who want to buy products that reflect their values have a right to know whether a company they purchase from is following through on its commitment to production integrity,” said Senator Saldana.

According to a report in the Columbia Basin Herald, the bill applies not just to large agricultural companies but to large retailers who sell farm products as well. “The bill would require retail sellers to annually disclose violations of employment-related laws, court or arbitration rulings, citation or other ruling by governmental agencies, and criminal convictions on their website,” noted staff writer Emma Epperly. Consumers could use this information to make better-informed purchases and avoid products  linked to labor abuses. Suppliers are also required to report violations to the retailers with statutory damages ranging from $500 to $7,000.”

Adelaida Mendoza, a farmworker form Yakima Valley explained why the bill is needed in a UFW web article: “Many of us have worked for bad employers that broke the law by underpaying for the hours worked, or refusing to allow the breaks required by law,” Mendoza said. “The stores that sell those products take no responsibility for violation committed by their suppliers. This bill would change that mentality.”

The bill defines agricultural products as cocoa, dairy, coffee, sugar and fruit products. For reasons that are unclear to us, the bill considers wheat, potatoes, onions, asparagus, or other vegetables not to be agricultural products. Onion and many vegetables are common crops In the U.S. that children help harvest, so we’d love to see a broad range of vegetables added into the bill’s coverage.

Sadly, U.S. child labor laws are so weak that they allow a 12-year-old to work unlimited hours in the field (as long as the child is not missing school); as a result, much of the agricultural child labor in the U.S. is not a violation of child labor law. This is something that the CLC and AFOP, a long-serving member of the coalition have long worked to change—we’d love to see children who work in agriculture protected just like children who work in all other sectors. With respect to child labor, the transparency bill could provide some limited help: We still see children under 12 working on farms, albeit in limited numbers.  Depending upon the size of the farm, this could be the type of labor violation that triggers provisions of the bill. We are also well aware that child labor is incentivized because of poor pay to farmworker parents. If the agricultural sector stops wage theft and pays parents a living wage, it will help reduce child labor.

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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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