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USA: Abusive Child Labor Found in Agriculture

Federal Law Discriminates Against Child Farmworkers
Human Rights Watch
June 20th, 2000

NEW YORK -- Hundreds of thousands of child farmworkers are laboring under dangerous and grueling conditions in the United States, Human Rights Watch charged in a report released today.

The international rights group found that child farmworkers often work twelve- and fourteen-hour days, and risk pesticide poisoning, heat illness, injuries and life-long disabilities. The vast majority of child farmworkers are Latino.

The laws governing minors working in agriculture are much less stringent than those for other sectors of the economy, Human Rights Watch said, allowing children to work at younger ages, for longer hours, and under more hazardous conditions than children in other jobs.

"Farm work is the most dangerous work open to children in this country," said Lois Whitman, Executive Director of the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "U.S. laws should be changed to protect the health, safety, and education of all children."

The 1938 federal law governing this type of labor specifically exempts farmworker youth from the minimum age and maximum hour requirements protecting other children. At the state level, eighteen states have no minimum age for farmwork, while in some other states the minimum age is as low as nine or ten.

The report, "Fingers to the Bone: United States Failure to Protect Child Farmworkers," focuses on children aged thirteen to sixteen. Some of these young workers told Human Rights Watch that they work as many as seventy or eighty hours a week. Often, their workdays begin before dawn.

Drawing on scores of interviews with child farmworkers and farmworker advocates, "Fingers to the Bone" concludes that:

  • Juvenile farmworkers are routinely exposed to dangerous pesticides, suffering rashes, headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. Long-term consequences of pesticide poisoning include cancer, brain damage, and learning and memory problems.

  • Many young farmworkers are forced to work without access to toilet facilities, handwashing facilities, and adequate drinking water, the three most basic sanitation requirements. The lack of handwashing facilities contributes to pesticide poisoning and bacterial infections, while the lack of adequate drinking water can lead to dehydration and heat illness. Children often work in fields where the temperature is well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

  • Children working in agriculture suffer a high rate of injuries from knives and heavy equipment. Child farmworkers account for eight percent of all working minors, but suffer 40 percent of work-related fatalities among children.

  • Long hours of work interfere with the education of children working in the fields. Statistically, only 55 percent of farmworker children in the United States finish high school. Of the dozens interviewed by Human Rights Watch, nearly every one had dropped out of school for at least one extended period of time.

  • Young farmworkers are often cheated from receiving their rightful wages, and many earn far less than minimum wage. Some interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported earnings as little as two dollars an hour. Currently, the federal minimum wage is $5.15.

Human Rights Watch called on Congress to amend US labor law to end discrimination against child farm workers. The law at issue is the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which specifically exempts farmworker youth from the minimum age and maximum hour requirements protecting other children. In other occupations, the FLSA prohibits the employment of children under fourteen, and limits children under sixteen to three hours of work a day when school is in session. In addition, the FLSA allows sixteen and seventeen-year olds to work under hazardous conditions in agriculture; in all other occupations the minimum age for hazardous work is eighteen.

"A twelve-year-old kid can work unlimited hours on a farm, but isn't allowed to work in a fast-food restaurant," said Lee Tucker, a Human Rights Watch consultant and author of the report. "There's no good reason to have such a double standard."

Last year, the United States was one of the first countries to ratify a new treaty on the worst forms of child labor. Congress recently denied trade benefits to developing countries that don't comply with the new treaty. But the United States itself is not in compliance, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch urged the Department of Labor to more vigorously enforce violations of already-existing laws, including minimum wage requirements, and the Environmental Protection Agency to better protect children from pesticide exposure. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration should expand enforcement of field sanitation regulations, Human Rights Watch said, and all states should set or raise the minimum age for agricultural work to at least fourteen.