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Report Finds Government Fails to Protect Child Farm Workers

(Beyond Pesticides, May 7, 2010) Human Rights Watch has released a scathing report entitled “Fields of Peril” on the treatment of child farm workers in the United States. To compile the report, Human Rights Watch interviewed child and young adult farm laborers and parents in all regions of the country, as well as farm managers, and owners, lawyers, doctors, social workers, nurses, and government officials. A previous report entitled “Fingers to the Bone” was released in 2000. Their research shows that conditions have not changed much for the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 child farm workers in the United States. Exposure to pesticides, long hours in extreme weather, the use of heavy machinery, and demanding physical labor makes farm work one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) farm work is the most dangerous work open to children. Yet child farm workers have much less protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) than children in any other industry. According to the report, even the minimal protections established by the FLSA are often ignored by employers. Impoverished farmworkers fearing the loss of their jobs or the threat of deportation are reluctant to report abuses by employers. To provide better protection for child farm workers, Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard of California introduced the bill H.R. 3564:Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE).

Farm work is demanding and dangerous physical labor. Children are much more vulnerable than adults to the injuries and illnesses brought on by this type of work. Due to children’s higher rate of metabolism, they take in more pesticides per unit weight than adults, and their developing organ systems are more sensitive to the effects of pesticides. To protect workers from acute pesticide exposure, EPA sets Restricted Entry Intervals (REI), the time after a pesticide is sprayed during which workers are not permitted to enter the field. REIs, however, are based on a 154 pound male. EPA does not make any special considerations for children or pregnant women. Children interviewed by Human Rights Watch for the report described many cases where they were exposed to drift from neighboring fields, or went to work in a field where crops were still wet from pesticide application. Children were observed to be working without any protective clothing, such as long pants or long sleeved shirts. Many were seen working without even shoes. When asked, the children said they do not wear gloves when they work because it makes harvesting more difficult, and their pay will be docked if they bruise the produce. In addition to increased pesticide exposure, children who do not wear gloves suffer from painful cuts and blisters. Children who were wearing protective clothing often said it was at the insistence of their parents, not their employer. A child’s growing bones also make him or her more vulnerable to repetitive stress injury.

The children interviewed by Human Rights Watch described many symptoms of pesticide poisoning such as headache, dizziness, blurred vision, vomiting, and rash. However, having never been educated on the dangers of pesticides or their proper use they did not connect their symptoms to pesticides. Julia N., a former child farm worker who now trains farm workers on pesticide safety, described being poisoned by pesticides when she took off her bandanna and gloves. She experienced itching, dizziness, and blurred vision. “I feel so bad that I didn’t know and that so many people don’t know that if they take off a glove that could expose them to pesticides and they’ll have so many problems,” she said. Several children said they were never told what pesticides were used, and what safety measures they should be taking. “They don’t tell us anything [about pesticides],” 16 year old Noemi J. said.

FLSA was enacted in 1938 to protect child laborers. It provided no protection to children in agriculture, since most of them were working on their families’ farms. The law was amended in 1974 to provide some protection to child farm workers. Outside of agriculture children must be 16 or older to accept most jobs. Employers may hire 14 year olds for certain jobs such as a cashier, but they are only allowed to work 18 hours a week during the school year, and 40 hours a week in the summer. There is no minimum age for children working on small farms. Large farms children as young as 12. Children in the report described working 12 and 14 hour shifts despite being ill or injured. The minimum age for jobs considered especially hazardous is 16 in the agricultural industry, but 18 in all other industries. For example a 16 year old can operate a forklift on a farm, but cannot operate on in a store warehouse. Seventeen states do not cover agricultural workers in their child labor regulations. Human Rights Watch cites many instances where employers disregarded the few protections in place. Children reported being paid much less than minimum wage. Employers underreported hours, and docked workers’ pay for equipment and transportation to the work site. Exploitation of children in agriculture goes largely unreported. Many child farm workers are natural born U.S. citizens of undocumented or illegal immigrants. They do not make complaints, for fear of losing their job or having family members deported.

In response to the report, EPA and the Department of Labor (DOL) promised to crack down on the exploitation of children in agriculture. In September of 2009 Rep. Roybal-Allard introduced CARE, a bill that would extend the protections given to working children under FLSA to children working in agriculture, unless the child is working on a farm owned by the parents. The bill would require DOL to keep better records on child farm workers, and increase penalties for FLSA violations. The American Farm Bureau opposes the bill. Ron Gaskill, the Bureau’s senior director of congressional relations, suggested the bill might “take away the opportunity for rural youth to get gainful work experience.” So far the bill has 87 co sponsors. The United States Department of Agriculture has also come out in support of tougher enforcement.

Source: The Washington Post

Take Action:

Human Rights Watch has a campaign, End Child Labor in the Fields. They are urging you to contact your Congressional Representative to ask them to support CARE.


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