We must protect children in agriculture

Norma Flores can tell you firsthand that the exploitation of child labor is not just a problem in other countries. On any given day in the United States, thousands of children toil in agricultural fields across the country harvesting the fruits and vegetables Americans consume every day.Caught up in our busy lives, most of us are unaware that this happens in our own backyard. Even more shocking, however, is the fact that our nation's labor laws actually allow it. Child agricultural workers are exempted from restrictions that protect children who work in all other occupations. Norma knows all too well the impact of this unjust double-standard on child farmworkers. She was only 9 when she began working in the fields. By the time she turned 12, she worked 10 to 12 hours a day in the onion fields and on other hot, grueling jobs picking asparagus, apples and detasseling corn. Her family migrated every year to follow the harvest, traveling from their home in Texas to Indiana, Iowa and Michigan. By the time Norma and her family returned to Texas each fall, school was already underway, and she was two or three months behind her classmates. While Norma managed to stay in school and graduate from college, studies show that she is by far the exception. In fact, a Human Rights Watch report released in May 2010 found that farmworker youth - unable to make up missed classes and overcome by the exhaustion of countless hours working in the fields - drop out of school at four times the national drop out rate. Farmworker children perform backbreaking labor for long hours and very little pay. Not only do they earn sub-minimum wages but, under current law, children working in agriculture are allowed to use hazardous farm equipment and work in an environment that continually exposes them to poisonous pesticides, which can lead to serious injury or even death. These dangerous and exploitative conditions - illegal in every other industry - simply do not reflect the precious value we, as Americans, place on children. To end this unacceptable disparity, I have authored the CARE Act in Congress to raise federal labor standards for farmworker children to the same level as those for children in all other occupations - a move backed by Human Rights Watch and 105 other supporters from the non-profit, private and public sectors. While preserving the family farm exception and still allowing children to participate in valuable educational opportunities such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America, the legislation raises the minimum age for working in agriculture from the current 12 years to 14 and restricts children under 16 from working when it interferes with their education or endangers their health and well-being. The CARE Act also prohibits children under the age of 18 from agricultural work that the U.S. Department of Labor deems particularly hazardous. This is consistent with current law governing all industries outside of agriculture. For all of the children working in abusive conditions right now in our nation's agricultural fields, I ask you to contact your Member of Congress and ask them to do the right thing and support this important legislation. As a society, we must change our unjust laws to protect all children equally, regardless of whether they're picking tomatoes or flipping burgers in a fast-food restaurant. By enacting the CARE Act into law, we will be one step closer to fulfilling our moral obligation to do all we can to protect the rights, safety and educational future of our nation's most precious resource: our children.

********** Published: September 23, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 23