NOTE: The views expressed here belong to the individual contributors and not to Princeton University or the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Big Business, Small Hands: Changing child labor laws in US agriculture

Megan Corrarino, MPA

Imagine a country where twelve-year-old children work twelve-hour days, where wage theft is rampant, and where child workers handle pesticides, operate hazardous machinery, and engage in other dangerous work that contravenes of the International Labor Organization’s Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor. In the US, these are the workplace conditions for roughly half a million children currently working on commercial farms. While most forms of child labor are strictly regulated, a farmwork exemption to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) allows children to work at younger ages, for longer hours, and under more dangerous conditions than in any other industry in the country.

When the FLSA was created in 1938, agricultural lobbyists convinced Congress that applying the same standards to agriculture would spell the end of the rural way of life. But most children working on farms today are not family farmers’ sons and daughters, rising early to milk cows before school or spending summers learning the family business. Most children today work on commercial farms. They are overwhelmingly migrant, poor, and vulnerable. They perform routine tasks for hours on end, leaving them susceptible to repetitive motion injuries, and are often exposed to highly toxic pesticides and other hazards. An average of 104 child agricultural workers die each year, and over 22,000 are injured – a rate more than four times that in other sectors. Sexual harassment and abuse are commonplace. Children employed on farms, like their adult colleagues, work long hours, are not entitled to overtime, and often move in order to follow the growing season. Half of all child agricultural workers never graduate from high school.

Current farm labor law fails to protect the rights of children in two ways. First, the laws themselves fail to require reasonable working conditions that respect the dignity of child workers and that provide sufficient support and time for schooling. For example, in addition to allowing children to perform hazardous work, current farm labor laws allow 14- and 15-year old children to work unlimited hours – even during the school year. In any other sector, the same children would be restricted to three hours of work a day on school days and eight hours on other days.

Second, agricultural labor laws that do exist are often poorly enforced. Children are particularly vulnerable to rights abuses. The 1983 Migrant and Seasonal Protection Act, for example, guarantees a minimum wage. Although farmers may pay by the pieces picked instead, they are required to make up the difference if that does not reach the set wage. But children often pick on family tickets, making it difficult to determine what they should have been paid and allowing employers to hide the hours worked if children ever try to recover unpaid wages.

A proposed Department of Labor rules change, designed to “bring parity between the rules for agricultural employment and the more stringent rules that apply to the employment of children in nonagricultural workplaces,” would, among other things, limit animal and pesticide handling, prevent children under 16 from working on tobacco farms, and restrict operation of power-driven equipment by children under 16. But even these relatively straightforward changes have faced opposition from a wide range of agricultural lobbyists.

Given the resistance to even these small changes, comprehensive child labor reform will be a political challenge. But it is nevertheless necessary; child workers in agriculture typically work out of economic necessity and are among our country’s most vulnerable workers. Workplace laws must protect their fundamental human rights.

One bundle of suggested reforms, the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE Act), HR 3564, would apply the same workplace standards to agricultural child workers as are currently applied to others. (It would still include a family farm exemption.) Crucially, because enforcement of labor law is often challenging, particularly in agriculture, it would require better data collection by the Department of Labor and would raise the fines for violations from $11,000 to $15,000 – making employers less willing to take a risk.

Advocates for the CARE Act are currently lobbying with a non-traditional coalition of agricultural unions, members of Congress, filmmakers, Hollywood stars, and human rights organizations. Successful advocacy will require continued public mobilization and creative alliance-building – perhaps drawing on coalitions of workers in other informal sectors, or parlaying the growing national interest in food policy to highlight labor practices in the food production chain. As Edward R. Murrow observed in The Harvest of Shame, a 1960 documentary that reflected agricultural working conditions strikingly similar to today’s, “The migrants have no lobby…Maybe we do.”

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