Child Labor on the Farm

at 12:35 AM

An estimated 400,000 workers aged 12 to 18 are among the farmworkers who do the vital, difficult and dangerous work that feeds us all.

It's common for the workers, who are as young as 12, to work eight to 12 hours a day, sometimes more, six days a week during the summer when school's not in session, and up to 18 hours a week at other times of the year. They risk pesticide poisoning and exhaustion or dehydration from working under the hot sun.

They suffer fatalities at five times the rate of children doing other work and far more disabling injuries. Although federal law prohibits children under 18 from doing hazardous work in other industries, it allows 16 and 17 year olds to do hazardous work in agriculture, which is the country's most hazardous industry.

That the youngsters are allowed to work up to 18 hours a week during school months is the main cause for their generally poor school attendance. They're too busy earning money for their very poor families to attend school regularly. Many end up dropping out of school.

U.S. agriculture is in many ways quite advanced. But its labor practices are strictly 19th century. We've come a long way since child labor was a common practice. It's past time that agriculture caught up.

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That could happen with passage of a bill now pending in Congress that would bring the regulations governing the hours and working conditions of young farmworkers in line with those covering young workers in other industries.

That would mean, for example, that workers would have to be at least 16 to work in agriculture and 18 or older to work in especially dangerous farm jobs. Growers who violated the law would face stiff fines and prison terms.

Child labor advocates in other nations are pressuring the United States to take a leadership role in updating the laws and regulations that govern child labor. The pending legislation would enable the U.S. to do just that -- and provide long needed help to many thousands of our most needy and valuable workers.

With a Perspective, this is Dick Meister.

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