NBC Dateline examines child labor in U.S. agriculture – National Consumers League

By Reid Maki, Coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition

Did anyone catch NBC Dateline’s excellent expose, the “Children of the Harvest”, about the plight of migrant farmworker children Sunday night? In the show, Dateline returned to a subject it had covered in an Emmy Award-winning broadcast in 1998 and found that 12 years later, significant numbers of small children and young teens are still helping harvest the nation’s fruits and vegetables.

The show followed the Cruz family as it migrated from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to Minnesota where it hoed sugar beet fields and cleared fields of rock. Ulysses or “Uly”, the family’s 10-year-old, was just one of many children shown by Dateline cameras working in agriculture, including several children even younger picking blueberries. “Consumers would never know that the berries on their morning cereal were picked by five- and six-year-olds,” said reporter Dennis Murphy.

Exemptions in U.S. child labor law allow children as young as 12 to work in the fields legally. They do this work at considerable risk. Machinery, tools, and pesticides combine to make agriculture a particularly dangerous industry to work in—with a child fatality rate four times that of other job sectors. Young Uly is seen driving a tractor and told NBC that he started driving an ATV used for picking rocks when he was only six.

The children also suffer educationally. A teacher said that Uly was three years behind in his writing and reading levels. The disruptions and exhaustion that comes along with a migrant lifestyle cause farmworker children to drop out at four times the rate of other children, according to NBC. Uly routinely leaves school in Texas in early May to migrate and doesn’t return to his home school district until late November.

For their efforts, most kids are compensated below minimum wage rates.

U.S. child labor laws seem irrational when it comes to agriculture. A 12-year-old child can pick blueberries all day long in the sun, but can’t sell those blueberries in an air-conditioned grocery store. “We don’t let parents take their kids into the mines. We shouldn’t let them take them into the fields,” said Zama-Coursen Neff, the author of the Human Rights Watch report, Fields of Peril. “Agriculture is dangerous. It shouldn’t be the only industry that small children can work in legally,” she added.

Department of Labor official Carl Fillichio, a senior advisor to Secretary Solis, suggested that the fields are not a good environment for children: “The nature of the work—it is outdoors, it is back-breaking—it is not a place for a kid.” The Department of Labor has stepped up enforcement efforts— but as Dateline pointed out—only $60,000 out of the $4 million of child labor fines levied by the Department in 2009 were in U.S. agriculture, and the average fine was only about $900. Still, the Department has hired 250 new investigators, recently announced plans to increase fines, and says it is determined to make the fields safer for children.

The larger problem is that U.S. laws allow children to work at 12. The National Consumers League is among a handful of groups working on a daily basis to pass the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE), legislation that would keep 12- and 13-year-olds out of the fields unless they are working on their parent’s farm. The bill would extend protections, including hour restrictions, to 14- and 15-year-olds, and it would bar tasks considered hazardous for 16- and 17-year-olds, who are currently allowed to perform dangerous work because of the agricultural exemption.

Despite having more than 100 cosponsors and the organizational support of 106 groups, the bill has not moved out of the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections where it was initially referred. Our hope is that folks will be moved by the plight of Ulysses Cruz and urge Congress to protect migrant farmworker children. The Dateline piece ends on a hopeful note as it points out that some of the children from the 1998 segment went on to college and are successful professionals, but the sad truth is that most farmworker children do not graduate high school.