46 Congressmembers Urge US to Protect Child Farmworkers

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A 15-year-old girl works on a tobacco farm in North Carolina. July 2013.

© 2013 Human Rights Watch

This week, 46 members of the United States House of Representatives urged Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to issue new regulations to protect child farmworkers.

Representatives Lucille Roybal-Allard of California and David Cicilline of Rhode Island lead the letter.

Agriculture is the most dangerous industry in the US for child workers. A 2018 US government study found more children die working in agriculture than in any other industry. More than half of all work-related deaths among children between 2003 and 2016 were in agriculture, the study showed, even though child farmworkers are only estimated to make up 3 percent of working children.

Under outdated loopholes in US labor law and regulations, children can work from younger ages and for longer hours in agriculture than in any other sector. It is legal for a 12-year-old to be hired to work unlimited hours on a farm of any size, as long as they have parental permission and don’t miss school. My colleagues and I have interviewed many children working 12 or 14-hour days on farms in punishing heat and with little to no safety training or protective equipment. In agriculture, children at 16 can do work considered “particularly hazardous.” In every other sector, one must be 18 to do hazardous work.

Members of Congress hope to close these loopholes through legislation. But the Labor Department also needs to act.

Secretary Walsh has the authority to determine which jobs are hazardous and off limits to hired child farmworkers under 16. The current, inadequate hazardous work list has not been updated in more than 50 years. For example, it does not restrict children from toxic work with tobacco, where they risk acute nicotine poisoning from absorbing nicotine through the skin. The most common symptoms are nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness – which many child tobacco workers told us they experienced.

An effort to update the list during the administration of former President Barack Obama failed due to opposition from agricultural lobby groups. Now the administration of President Joe Biden is up. Secretary Walsh should heed the call from members of Congress and initiate a new rulemaking process, with input from a broad range of stakeholders, including health and safety experts and representatives of agricultural communities.

As the members of Congress said in their letter, “The health and lives of thousands of children nationwide depend on it.”

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