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July 2010, Volume 16, Number 3

HRW: Child Labor in US Agriculture

Human Rights Watch released a 99-page report on May 5, 2010 that estimated 300,000 to 400,000 children under 18 work on US farms. HRW reported that many children employed on farms do not earn the minimum wage, and that allowing those 16 and 17 years old to do hazardous work on farms contributed to 43 work-related deaths of child farm workers between 2005 and 2008; the minimum age for hazardous work in nonfarm jobs is 18.

HRW called for ending exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act for children employed in agriculture: "Children who pick America's food should at least have the same protections as those who serve it." The Children's Act for Responsible Employment of 2007 (CARE) would end the agricultural FLSA exemptions.

The HRW report was based on interviews with 59 children under 18 who worked on farms in 14 states as well as data and estimates from farm worker assistance programs. The HRW report was especially critical of DOL for having insufficient inspectors to prevent unlawful employment of children on farms and EPA for not setting different pesticide safety standards for children. DOL noted that, under its 2009 child labor initiative, blueberry farms in Michigan, New Jersey and North Carolina were fined for employing child workers.

The HRW report asserts that many children "work 10 hours or more a day?five to seven days a week, weather permitting [and] earn less than the minimum wage." (p6) HRW described children doing farm work without protection from pesticides or with gloves they purchased themselves. HRW recommended ending agricultural labor law exemptions and providing more funding for Migrant Education, have DOL conduct more workplace inspections, and have EPS better monitor farm worker pesticide exposure (p12).

There are no official estimates of the number of children under 18 employed in agriculture. HRW estimated that 212,000 children under 18 were employed in agriculture by multiplying the nine percent share of workers under 18 reported by farm employers in a NIOSH telephone survey by the 2.6 million workers hired directly by farm operators in the 2007 COA (p16). However, the 2.6 million is a count of jobs, not workers? one worker employed on two farms is counted twice. On the other hand, the workers brought to farms by labor contractors are not counted in the COA, only the expenditures of farm operators on such workers.

NIOSH told HRW that almost 500,000 children under 18 worked on the farm on which they lived. There are no statistical sources of such data.

HRW reported that children went to work with their parents to help earn income, and that many earn less than the minimum wage. HRW dismisses data that shows average farm worker earnings are above the minimum wage (p28), saying they are inflated by children's work being counted with their parents and employers underreporting hours of work. HRW asserts that many piece rate workers do not work fast enough to earn the minimum wage (p31).

HRW decries the low educational level of farm workers, reporting that a third of US-born farm workers did not complete high school. HRW says that estimates that migrant farm worker children change schools an average three times a year are consistent with its interviews (p34) and noted that Migrant Education reported serving 488,000 children in 2003-09, about 54 percent of the ME-estimated eligible population (p37).

The 43 children who died in agriculture between 2005 and 2008 were 27 percent of all fatalities among workers under 18 during these years (p38). HRW describes accidents, working with sharp tools, and musculoskeletal disorders, as well as exposure to pesticides. HRW reported that children and their parents complained of working in fields without toilets and drinking water (p56-7), and that child and adult farm workers have insufficient access to health care. HRW summarizes several recent cases of sexual harassment (p60-65).

HRW decries immigration inspections and 287(g) agreements under which local police are trained to enforce immigration laws (pp67-9), the exemptions in the FLSA for children and overtime. DOL's WHD made 1,379 "full investigations" in agriculture in 2009, and HRW asserts that, since it found only 36 child labor law violations, WHD needs "better methods for determining where child labor violations are likely to occur" (p75). WHD had almost 900 inspectors in April 2010 (p77).

The HRW report reviews NIOSH recommendations to further restrict the farm jobs that can be held by workers under 18, such as making the maximum length of ladders for those under 18 from 20 to six feet and requiring rollover protection on tractors driven by 14- and 15-year olds (p78). HRW calls for an end to the exemption from OSHA requirements for farms with 10 or fewer workers; OSHA regulations and enforcement generally apply to farms with 11 or more workers.

HRW notes that ILO Convention 182 on child labor, which the US ratified in 1999, has an associated recommendation that discourages children from being exposed to the "worst forms of child labor." The US government acknowledged that 16- and 17-year olds are allowed to fill virtually all jobs on farms (the US labor force is persons 16 and older), and that there are not separate safety standards for 16- and 17-year old farm workers (p87).

The ILO estimated that 215 million children worldwide were engaged in illegal or hazardous work between 2004-08, including 115 million in the "worst forms" of child labor, such as hazardous work such as mining and illegal activities such as prostitution and bonded labor.

The number of children under 15 employed in hazardous work declined by a third since 2000, but the number of 15- to 17-year old workers rose. By region, the ILO reported 114 million child workers in Asia, 65 million in sub-Saharan Africa, and 14 million in Latin America. In countries such as Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, over half of children were working; in India, an eighth of children worked. The US provides $25 million a year to the ILO for campaigns to reduce child labor.

The ILO warned in a May 2010 report that the world is unlikely to achieve the goal of eliminating child labor by 2016. It called for a three-pronged effort of free and compulsory education, strong labor laws that restrict child labor, and adequate inspections to enforce child labor laws.

DOL. On June 16, 2010, DOL announced that it would raise fines for hiring workers ages 12 to 13 (now $775 in agriculture) to at least $6,000 per violation, and to $8,000 for hiring workers under 12 (now $1,150 in agriculture). In US agriculture, children under age 12 may work with parental consent on very small farms that are not subject to the federal minimum wage requirements.

Children ages 12 and 13 may be employed in agricultural work on the same farm as a parent or with a parent's consent, and those 14 and 15 may work outside school hours in jobs not declared hazardous by DOL. The FLSA allows those 16 and older to work in any farm job at any time. DOL hired an additional 250 inspectors, bringing the total to almost 1,000.

The New York Times reported that the DOL crackdown is being taken seriously by blueberry growers in eastern North Carolina, where nine blueberry farms and 17 labor contractors were fined in August 2009; no underage children were found in 2010. A Migrant Head Start center that opened in 2008 provides free day care for 138 children, and free transportation from migrant camps to the center. The piece rate for picking blueberries in 2010 was reported to be $2.50 a bucket.

Erik Eckholm, "U.S. Puts Focus on Farm Labor," New York Times, June 18, 2010. Coursen-Neff, Zama. 2010. Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture (

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