by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
the Clinton administration's efforts to assert U.S. leadership in fighting child labor overseas, hundreds of thousands of child farm laborers are working in abusive conditions in the United States, according to a new report released June 20.
Working as many as 18 hours a day during peak harvest period, the children, sometimes as young as 12 and 13, risk their health from pesticide poisoning, heat sickness, and equipment injuries, according to the report. They also often miss school.
The report, by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), says the vast majority of children are Latino, as much as 99 percent in some southwestern states, although children of other minority groups are exploited, as well. Altogether, an estimated 85 percent of migrant and seasonal farm workers consist of minorities.
Abuses persist because the laws governing minors working in agriculture are much less stringent than those for other economic sectors, according to the 104-page report, "Fingers to the Bone: United States Failure to Protect Child Farm Workers."
While the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), bans "oppressive child labor," it permits children working on farms to be employed at the age of 12, rather than 14 as in other industries. In some states, there is no minimum age for farm work; in others, it's as low as nine or 10.
Unlike for other sectors, the law also fails to limit the number of hours a child may work each day; nor does it require overtime pay. And while the FLSA sets the minimum age for engaging in "hazardous" work, such jobs can be assigned to children farm workers at 16.
As a result of this discrimination, the same children exposed to hazardous work in the fields are barred from seeking less dangerous employment in other sectors.
"Farm work is the most dangerous work open to children in this country," according to Lois Whitman, director of the Children's Rights Division of HRW. "U.S. laws should be changed to protect the health, safety, and education of all children."
The report was released amid efforts by the Clinton administration to draw public attention and funding to the problem of child labor, albeit in developing countries overseas.
has mentioned the issue in his three past State of the Union addresses and in 1999 issued an executive order banning government procurement of items made by forced child labor.
At the same time, he has sharply increased funding for international programs, particularly through the International Labor Organization (ILO), to monitor and reduce the worst forms of child labor, including prostitution and especially hazardous work. He is currently asking Congress for $110 million for that purpose for 2001 -- up from $3 million just a few years ago.
But back home, Clinton has done very little in raising U.S. standards. Noting that the United States was one of the first countries to ratify ILO Convention 182, a new treaty on the worst forms of child labor, the report concludes that it "appears to be headed toward non compliance" when the Convention takes effect in December.
"As seen in this report, children working in agriculture in the United States -- who number in the hundreds of thousands -- face the risks outlined (in the Convention): work with dangerous machinery, equipment, and tools; work in an unhealthy environment, including exposure to hazardous substances, notably pesticides; and work for long hours, during the night, or without the possibility of returning home each day," the report says.
What makes this possible is the immense political power wielded by agricultural interests in the United States, particularly in key states like California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, and Washington State. Even where laws apply, state legislatures and Congress have kept government regulatory and monitoring bodies poorly funded.
As a result, the plight of migrant farm workers -- children and adults -- is a hard one. The average annual income for a two-job farm worker family is just over $14,000, well below the official poverty level, which was $16,700 last year.
The poor wages and exploitative conditions, combined with the lack of a stable residence and often poor English, results in an "intergenerational cycle of poverty" for farm worker families in which children are forced to work in the fields alongside their parents to make extra money.
In its investigation, HRW interviewed more than 30 child farm workers, most of them in Arizona, as well as dozens of farm worker advocates and experts both in Arizona and across the nation. It cited various estimates of the number of children working in the fields from 300,000 to as many as 800,000.
It found that 12-hour workdays for most children are common, although the number of hours can rise to as much as 18 during harvest time.
It also found that children are "routinely exposed to dangerous pesticides, sometimes working in fields still wet with poison, often given no opportunity to wash their hands before eating lunch." In addition, without adequate water, many child workers risk heat exhaustion and dehydration.
Children also suffer a high rate of injuries from knives, heavy equipment, and falling from ladders. Such accidents are made more probable by the lack of sleep during peak periods.
Altogether, child farm workers account for eight percent of all working minors in the United States but suffer 40 percent of all work-related child fatalities, according to government data.
Despite this abuse, younger farm workers are often cheated by their employers who pay as little as $2 per hour, more than $3 less than the legal minimum wage.
The children's education is also compromised by the long hours and difficult work, according to the report. Only about 55 percent of farmworker children in the United States finish high school, and those who do often graduate much later than their peers.
The report also found that owners of farms using child labor often avoid legal responsibility by using contractors, which can include individuals or even large corporations. Farm labor contractors are usually paid a lump sum by the growers as part of a contract by which the contractor typically is responsible for hiring and overseeing the workers and ensuring that the work is done.
July 3, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
All Rights Reserved.
Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.