Oct 24 6:36 PM

5 things you need to know about child labor in U.S. agriculture

Tomorrow night, Friday, October 25th, at 9:30p EST, our new Fault Lines episode “Children at Work” airs on Al Jazeera America. 

In this episode, Fault Lines’ Wab Kinew investigates how children are hired by US agriculture to help put food on America’s tables.  

"Fields of Peril," Human Rights Watch, May 2010

Hundreds of thousands of children under age 18 are working in agriculture in the United States. But under a double standard in US federal law, children can toil in the fields at far younger ages, for far longer hours, and under far more hazardous conditions than all other working children. For too many of these children, farmwork means an early 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.

"For migrant students, a cycle of dwindling opportunities," Kevin Sieff for the Washington Post, November 6, 2010

Relentless mobility challenges the schools charged with educating the nation's 475,000 migrant students. Many never start school, and in Virginia one-third fail to graduate on time. Migrant students trail others in performance on the state's reading and math tests. That poses a major challenge for schools because federal law has set a goal for all students to pass those tests by 2014.

The stakes are even higher for the students themselves. "If these kids don't settle in one place by high school, graduation is basically an impossibility," said Katy Pitcock, who worked for Winchester's migrant education program for 25 years, until 2004.

"Child Labor Farm Rules Scrapped By White House Under Political Pressure," Dave Jamieson for Huffington Post, April 27, 2012

Facing political pressure from Republicans and farming groups, the White House has decided to scrap rules proposed last year that would have prevented minors from performing certain agricultural work deemed too dangerous for children.

The Labor Department announced the decision late Thursday, saying it was withdrawing the rules due to concern from the public over how they could affect family farms. "The Obama administration is firmly committed to promoting family farmers and respecting the rural way of life, especially the role that parents and other family members play in passing those traditions down through the generations," the department said in a statement.

"Child farm labor in Oregon and the U.S.: big dangers, little change," Anthony Schick for The Oregonian, September 29, 2012

Lax enforcement of underage labor laws and inadequate safety rules for teens are threatening the long-term health of thousands of children who work on American farms, advocates say.

Efforts to pay for closer monitoring have failed, and farm lobbyists have blocked tighter restrictions on the work children can do. The industry's most recent victory came in April, when the Obama administration killed a U.S. Labor Department plan that would have rewritten child farm rules for the first time since 1974.

The safety of children in the fields is a pressing issue in Oregon, where agriculture is an essential part of the economy.

The true extent of child labor in the state is hidden because official data do not include underage workers like Elvin. But visits to fields and interviews with farmworkers indicate it is far more widespread than statistics show.

Nearly everyone involved has an incentive to allow underage labor.

Farmers need crops picked, farmworkers need money children bring home and advocates for workers risk alienating whole families if they broach the subject. The tenuous residency status of many Mexican-born workers also plays a role.

"Obama, strengthen rules on child farm labor," Cristina Traina for CNN, January 7, 2013

The numbers are hard to estimate, but between direct hiring, hiring through labor contractors, and off-the-books work beside parents or for cash, perhaps 400,000 children, some as young as 6, weed and harvest for commercial farms. A Human Rights Watch 2010 study shows that children laboring for hire on farms routinely work more than 10 hours per day.

As if this were not bad enough, few labor safety regulations apply. Children 14 and older can work long hours at all but the most dangerous farm jobs without their parents' consent, if they do not miss school. Children 12 and older can too, as long as their parents agree. Unlike teen retail and service workers, agricultural laborers 16 and older are permitted to operate hazardous machinery and to work even during school hours.

In addition, Human Rights Watch reports that child farm laborers are exposed to dangerous pesticides; have inadequate access to water and bathrooms; fall ill from heat stroke; suffer sexual harassment; experience repetitive-motion injuries; rarely receive protective equipment like gloves and boots; and usually earn less than the minimum wage. Sometimes they earn nothing.


Immigration, Labor

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter