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Children working on farms at younger ages, report says

A 7-year-old living in the United States may have picked the blueberries in your refrigerator.

Hundreds of thousands of child farmworkers are working in the U.S. at younger ages, for longer hours, and facing greater risks than any other working youth, according to a new report. The  Human Rights Watch report, published this month, documents interviews with 59 children under age 18 who had worked as farmworkers in 14 states in various regions of the United States.

The organization is one of 53 that support a bill pending in Congress called The Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE) Act. The bill would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 and offer child farmworkers the same legal protections as youth in every other industry. Ninety-one co-sponsors support the bill, which has increased from 87 last week; all are Democrats. Many supporters fear the bill will lose significant momentum if not passed by the June recess.

“The United States spends over $25 million a year — more than all other countries combined — to eliminate child labor abroad, yet is tolerating exploitative child labor in its own backyard,” said Zama Coursen-Neff, author of the report. “I saw kids as young as 7 picking blueberries. Eight-year-olds shucking peas in Virginia. Children picking strawberries at 9 in North Dakota.” The report found children as young as 12 legally working more than 10 hours a day.

Current labor laws allow children ages 14 and up to work unlimited hours on a farm, as long as the time is outside of school hours. But a teenager working at McDonald’s can only legally work up to three hours on a school day. Child farmworkers can operate dangerous machinery as early as 16, while the minimum legal age for a lumberjack is 18.

Parental consent is all that’s needed for a child of any age to work on small farms of 10 or fewer employees. The trend in the U.S. according to a 2007 USDA census report, shows that these very small farms make up the majority of U.S. farms and, along with very large farms, are replacing medium size farms at an increasing rate.

The CARE Act would remove exceptions for children working in agriculture. It would amend the minimum legal age of child farmworkers to 16, except for special circumstances approved by the Department of Labor. It would also limit hours children can work on a school day. Work that falls under the Department of Labor’s list of hazardous jobs would have a minimum age requirement of 18. Jobs that would fall under this category would include anything that required operating a tractor or working from a ladder or scaffold at a height of more than 20 feet. Parental consent would no longer overrule labor laws; however, educational groups and children working on their parent’s farms would have special exceptions. Penalties for farm work employers who violate child labor laws would increase. The bill would require more research and data collection on working conditions.

American Farm Bureau, a nongovernmental organization representing farm and ranch families, is one group that opposes the bill. It believes any wide-reaching tightening of child labor laws in agriculture is unnecessary and would bring unintended consequences to the agriculture business.

“When you got to harvest, you have to harvest,” said Ron Gaskill, the group’s senior director of congressional relations. He said Farm Bureau does not see the need for any legal reform, “Over the course of time we have tried to carefully craft the laws and regulations that allow youth to learn, to earn in a safe environment.”

Gaskill grew up working on his family’s apple farm in New York. He says parents should be responsible for protecting their children and says Farm Bureau favors an increase in social services instead. “The change we need to make is that migrant workers need to understand the impact of the work on their child. It’s endemic in migrancy.”

Bill supporters disagree. “What really drives these families to have their kids working out in the fields is the extreme poverty,” said David Strauss, executive director of Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), an organization that supports the bill and has conducted its own field investigations into child farm labor. Since 1997, AFOP has advocated for stronger federal child labor laws.

According to Coursen-Neff’s findings, child farmworkers experience a high risk of repetitive motion injuries and exposure to pesticides. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website ranks agriculture among the most hazardous industries. And the U.S. Bureau of Labor reported 43 farm-related child deaths between 2005 and 2008.

The report says one-third of child farmworkers do not graduate from high school, many of whom are from migrant families who do not stay in one place long enough to regularly attend school. “Without an education, these kids are entering into a lifetime of poverty,” says Coursen-Neff. She says there is a higher rate of sexual harassment and violence caused by isolating work environments, language differences and many families’ financial dependency on the work.

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis commended Human Rights Watch for its report. Solis told the Associated Press that the agency has added more than 250 new field investigators in the last year and planned to add even more.

An Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson told the Associated Press that the agency was working to strengthen its assessment of pesticide health risks, in part to improve conditions for child workers, and expected to propose amendments to federal worker protection standards by 2012.

“There is a disconnect today between what we consume and knowing where the stuff in our lives come from,” says Roberto Romano, a filmmaker in production on a feature documentary about U.S. child farmworkers in the U.S. called “The Harvest.” “As Americans where 70 percent of our economy is based on consuming stuff we should know better.”

Read the report:Fields of Peril: Child Labor in U.S. Agriculture

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