Human Rights Watch releases long awaited report on child labor – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

The National Consumers League welcomes Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) long-awaited report Fields of Peril – Child Labor in US Agriculture. HRW is a longtime and invaluable partner with NCL and the Child Labor Coalition in pressing for protections for farmworker kids in the United States.

HRW’s report is an update from its 2000 “Fingers to the Bone: United States Failure to Protect Child Farmworkers,” and the conclusions from the 2009 report are all the more sobering because, as HRW concluded, “Shockingly, we found that conditions for child farmworkers in the United States remain virtually as they were a decade ago.”

NCL co-chairs the Child Labor Coalition with the American Federation of Teachers. The CLC is the only coalition of its kind in the US that brings together organizations dedicated to eradicating child labor, both in the US and abroad. Our domestic priority, led by our child labor director Reid Maki, is the adoption of the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment or CARE Act, which will give the same child labor protections to farmworker kids that all other kids enjoy.

HRW interviewed 59 children in 14 states. What they found is that children who work picking crops toil in the fields at far younger ages, for far longer hours, and under far more hazardous conditions than all other working children. As the report notes, this means:

an end to childhood, long hours at exploitative wages, and risk to their health and sometimes their lives. Although their families’ financial need helps push children into the fields – poverty among farmworkers is more than double that of all wage and salary employees– the long hours and demands of farmwork result in high-drop-out rates from school. Without a diploma, child workers are left with few options besides a lifetime of farmwork and the poverty that accompanies it.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which regulates child labor, children in agriculture receive much less protection than children working in other jobs. Under the law, on small farms with parental permission, outside of school hours, there is no minimum age for workers. Children ages 12 and 13 can work for any size farm with their parents’ consent outside of school hours; children 14 and 15 can work on any size farm without parental consent outside of school hours; there are no restrictions on employing children ages 16 and older, including in hazardous agricultural occupations.

By comparison, kids doing nonagricultural work are prohibited from almost all jobs—except for baby sitting, delivering newspapers, and a few other rare exceptions—when they are under age 14, and children ages 14 and 15 may work only in certain jobs designated by the Secretary of Labor and only for limited hours outside of school. Children in nonagricultural jobs are also prohibited from performing hazardous work before age 18.

The condition of farmworker kids in the United States is a national disgrace. These kids don’t get the education they need to break out of this cycle of poverty. But their situation is not really so different from the condition of children working in factories, mines or bakeries in America at the turn of the 20th Century. Florence Kelley, in heading the NCL’s work back then, would have made the same arguments to authorities and poor  families that we are making today – get these kids out of the fields and into schools and they won’t end up as their parents are: still poor and without other employment options.  And while we are at it, let’s pay farmworkers a decent wage, ensure clean water and toilet facilities close to their worksite, and give them access to housing that is more than a shack with an outdoor toilet.

We are indebted to our colleagues at HRW, Jo Becker and Zama Coursen-Neff, for this excellent new report, which should serve as a wake-up call for policymakers and legislators across the United States.