Federal laws does not allow a 13 year old to work in a comfortable air-conditioned office but will permit that child to work in 100-degree heat in a strawberry field.
The White House continues to sit on new child labor rules proposed last year by the Department of Labor. The rules have been awaiting review from the White House's Office of Management and Budget for the past nine months -- an unusually long time, even in the world of federal rule making. Such rules are supposed to be reviewed within 90 days, then go on to a public-comment period. Although the rules proposed by the Labor Department have not yet been made public, sources familiar with them say they would deem certain work activities on farms too dangerous for minors to perform, potentially strengthening laws that haven't been updated in 40 years. "It's currently legal for children as young as 12 to have their lives put in danger by working in agriculture," said Feldman. "The rules on the books now are antiquated and grossly inadequate."
A group of more than 25 public-health and workplace safety experts signed a letter sent to Cass Sunstein, the OMB official who oversees rule review, urging him to move the child labor rule along.
Children account for about 20 percent of all farm fatalities. According to the General Accountability Office in 1998, more than 100,000 children and teens are injured on farms each year. Farmworkers regularly work in fields treated with pesticides—some of them are known carcinogens. Child farmworkers are exposed to the same pesticide levels as adults, yet likely face a far greater health risk. Children ages three to 15 may experience at least three times the cancer threat that the same chemicals pose to adults.
There are currently over 400,000 American children who for six months out of the year they are on the road following the harvest, working 12 to 14-hour days doing backbreaking labor, coming into contact with toxic chemicals and earning below minimum wage. And it's all perfectly legal. These are the child farm-workers who pick the fruits and vegetables grown on America's farms. In 1938, during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act. The new legislation required that children must be at least 14 years of age to work outside the home, established a minimum wage and limited the number of hours a minor can work during the week. When the Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938, agriculture was exempt, supposedly because many farms were family-owned and the act was not meant to criminalize parents whose children worked for them. Nowadays, the exemption is a loophole by which corporations benefit from cheap child labor.
Mexican-American actress Eva Longoria expressed her support Sunday for the end of child labor and denounced the fact that in the United States, one of the world's richest countries, child laborers sometimes go to bed without having eaten. "It's not China, it's not Mexico, it's the United States," the actress said.
“Agriculture is the only industry governed by labor laws that allow children as young as 12 to work with virtually no restrictions on the number of hours they spend in the fields outside of the school day,” Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard said. “Tragically, unable to keep up with the competing demands of long work hours in the fields and school, a recent report found that child farmworkers drop out of school at four times the national dropout rate – slamming the door shut on the very pathway that could one day help them escape a lifetime of unrelenting work harvesting our crops..."
Researchers found that 30 percent of the farmworkers interviewed lived below the federal poverty line. Thirty-nine percent of families of four were below the poverty line. Half the families of six were in poverty, and six of ten 10 with more than seven individuals were below the poverty line. Dire poverty forces many farmworker parents to risk their children’s educational future by asking them to help augment family income helping to harvest crops.
Imagine if it was your five-year-old skipping naptime, snack time, and playtime to head out into a dusty, pesticide-covered field soon after the sun rose. His small blistered fingers picking tomatoes, hundreds of tomatoes, with temperatures in the high 90s. 12 hours later he heads home and has earned perhaps $25 for his day's work.
This is happening right now, in America, every day.