Failing to protect child workers employed on US farms
The summer months are marked by attention grabbing headlines of school age children in the U.S. being maimed and worse while working to earn a few bucks. Some of the recent horrid (yet preventable) incidents included the case of 14-year olds Jade Garza and Hannah Kendall of Sterling, Illinois who were electrocuted in July 2011 on a farm field while detassling corn; the case of Alex Pacas, 19 and Wyatt Whitebread, 14, who were sent into a grain elevator to "walk the corn" and suffocated to death under tons of grain; and
Give that excuse to the families of Alex Pacas (19) and Wyatt Whitebread (14), who were sent into a grain elevator without required safety harnesses to “walk the corn,” breaking up clumps so the grain could be removed from the elevator efficiently. The boys slipped into a hollow pocket, a common hazard in the industry, which is why the harnesses are required. They were smothered to death. Or we could ask the reaction of the families of another pair of boys, Tyler Zander and Bryce Gannon, both 17, whose legs got caught in a giant auger used to pull the grain into storage silos, causing grievous injuries.
The proposed rules exempted farms owned or operated by parents, Human Rights Watch said. However, after the Labor Department introduced the proposed rules in 2011, several members of Congress, including Senators John Thune and Jerry Moran and Representative Tom Latham, claimed that they would hurt family farms and agricultural training, and introduced bills to block the new rules.
“Training children for agricultural work shouldn’t include exposing them to being killed or maimed,” Coursen-Neff said. “Like all other jobs, the most dangerous farm jobs should be done by adults, not children."
US law allows 16 and 17-year-olds to work under hazardous conditions in agriculture; in all other occupations the minimum age for hazardous work is 18. In addition, in other occupations, the law prohibits the employment of children under age 14, and limits children under 16 to three hours of work a day when school is in session. In agriculture, however, children can work on any farm at age 12 and at any age on a small farm. Unlike for other jobs, the law sets no limit on how early in the morning, how late at night, or how many hours children can work in agriculture, as long as they do not work during school hours.
Even existing orders prohibiting hazardous work for children are almost never enforced for agriculture by the US government. In 2010 the Wage and Hour Division of the Labor Department cited only three violations of agricultural hazardous orders, or 0.3 percent of the 1,064 hazardous occupation violations it found that year. Voluntary farm safety rules have been tried but they have failed to keep children from dying at disproportionate rates, Human Rights Watch said.
“The US government gives less protection to children hired on farms than all other working children,” Coursen-Neff said. “This dangerous double standard falls disproportionately on poor Hispanic children, who are the great majority of child farmworkers.”
Some 85 percent of crop workers in the United States are Hispanic and they are overwhelmingly poor.
Child labor on farms not only risks children's health and lives, it also violates the international legal obligations of the US under the Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention of the International Labor Organization (ILO). In 2010, the ILO Committee of Experts expressed serious concerns regarding the significant number of injuries and fatalities suffered by children in US agriculture, and the exemptions in US law that allow young children to work. The committee called on the United States to take immediate action to comply with its treaty obligations.
"Only Congress can change the lethal double standard that allows children to do hazardous work in agriculture at age 16, while prohibiting the same work in all other jobs until age 18,” Coursen-Neff said. “But the Labor Department can protect children under 16 from hazardous jobs, and it should.”
Blueprint for Protecting Children in Agriculture (April 2011) : in that document Labor Secetary Hilda Solis describes her own experience as the daughter of a Bracero program worker. She wrote: "America can do better. Young people employed on farms have the same right to work in a safe environment as their classmates who work in a shopping mall. As the U.S. population grows, we know the demand for farm work is growing with it. There are steps we can and should take to make this work safer for young people."