We Americans proudly spend a lot of time chastising other parts of the world for what we see as human rights abuses and crimes. But given our abuse of farmworker children, especially migrant children, we are hypocrites when we chastise others.
In its recent report, "Fields of Peril: Child Labor in U.S. Agriculture," Human Rights Watch shows that the United States is not protecting hundreds of thousands of children who work in agriculture.
Agriculture is the most dangerous work open to children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Children risk pesticide poisoning, serious injury and heat illness, and they suffer fatalities at more than four times the rate of children working in other jobs. Some work without even the most basic protective gear, such as shoes or gloves.
"Fields of Peril" found that children as young as 12 regularly toil for 10 or more hours a day, five to seven days a week. Many children start working part time at age 6 or 7. Like many adult farmworkers, kids typically earn well below minimum wage, and their pay is often further slashed because their bosses underreport hours and require them to buy drinking water their employers should provide by law.
Now, for the first time, many advocates nationwide are hopeful that the plight of farmworker children will substantially improve. The Obama administration, led by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, the daughter of an immigrant field hand, has stepped up enforcement against growers who hire children and cheat workers out of their wages.
Solis' move is well-timed because Congress is looking at revising the 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act that exempts agriculture from treating children fairly. Currently, the act permits 12-year-olds to work limitless hours on commercial farms during the summer and outside of school hours the rest of the year.
The Obama administration was encouraged in its enforcement effort last fall when U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a California Democrat, introduced the Children's Act for Responsible Employment, or CARE Act, in the House. The bill has more than 80 co-sponsors and the support of nearly 100 organizations. Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin said he will introduce a similar bill in the Senate.
"Farmworker children often work long hours, use hazardous farm equipment, earn subminimum wages, and are continually exposed to hazardous pesticides," Roybal-Allard said in a prepared statement. "Our farmworker children deserve the same protections given to children in other industries; if they are too young they should not be working, and if they are working, they deserve protection from long hours and unsafe work practices.
"Tragically absent from our nation's classrooms each school year are thousands of children who, instead of going to school, will be working in the fields and orchards of our country. Studies show that an alarming 50 percent of youth who regularly perform farm work drop out of school. All children in our country deserve the benefits of an education. The CARE Act will help farmworker children receive valuable educational opportunities proven to be an essential pathway to a better life."
While education opportunities and hour and age protections are crucial, the bill addresses other problems:
• It increases the maximum civil monetary penalties for employers who violate child labor laws from $11,000 to $15,000. It raises the maximum penalty to $100,000 and imposes a criminal penalty of up to five years' imprisonment for intentional or repeat violations that lead to the death or serious injury of a child worker.
• It provides children with greater protections by raising the labor standards for pesticide exposure to the levels currently enforced by the EPA in all other industries.
• It requires data gathering on work-related injuries, illness and deaths of children under age 18 in agriculture, as well as an annual report by the secretary of labor on child labor nationwide.
As I stated earlier, many labor advocates welcome the CARE Act and the Obama administration's enforcement campaign. But we should not ignore the serious downside to it all. In an e-mail message, Lucas Benitez, a founder and a leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, one of the nation's most effective farmworker organizations, highlighted the negative impact of the new enforcement:
"We are very pleased that the Department of Labor has made farm labor in general a priority, and their focus on eliminating child labor in the fields is a welcome one. However, at the same time, child labor is a much deeper problem with its roots in the subpoverty wages that the parents of these children suffer while working in the fields.
"That poverty obliges children to help their parents by contributing to family income sometimes beginning at a very young age. As long as wages don't improve and the agricultural industry doesn't offer their workers the benefits and opportunities offered by other industries, child labor in the fields will continue to be a sad reality."
Benitez is right. The plight of farmworker children will not improve substantially until the plight of their parents improves substantially. From top to bottom, the problem is systemic.