Dear Members of the House Committee on Education and Labor,

I am writing on behalf of Human Rights Watch to urge your support for H.R. 3564, the Children's Act for Responsible Employment (CARE Act), introduced today by Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard. This bill will correct long-standing discrepancies in US child labor laws that allow children employed in commercial agriculture to work at far younger ages, for longer hours, and under more hazardous conditions than other working youth.

For over 10 years, Human Rights Watch has documented dangerous and grueling working conditions for hundreds of thousands of children working in US agriculture. This summer, in Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and Michigan, we interviewed children hoeing cotton and sorghum in scorching heat, cutting collard greens and kale with sharp knives, hitching and driving tractors, and stooped for hours picking cucumbers. We found children as young as 11 and 12 working 10 or more hours a day. They often received pay far below the minimum wage. Many employers provided no drinking water or toilets. Children described smelling and, in a few instances, being sprayed with pesticides. Many children had left school early or were still working elsewhere when their home schools started in August.

Unfortunately, these dangerous and exploitative working conditions are currently allowed by US law. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), agricultural employers can hire children as young as age 12 to work unlimited hours outside of school, and in some circumstances, even younger children with their parents' permission.  In contrast, employers outside of agriculture are prohibited from hiring children below age 14, and may only employ 14- and 15-year-olds to work 18 hours during a school week, and not more than 40 hours in a nonschool week. No such restrictions apply to children working in agriculture.

The exemptions for agriculture in US child labor law reflect a by-gone era where family farms were the norm. Today, the vast majority of child farmworkers are not working on their parents' land but are hired laborers employed by large commercial enterprises, and exposed to the increased hazards of heavy mechanization and pesticide use. The result is not only widespread exploitation, but some of the highest work-related injury and illness rates of any area of youth employment.

The CARE Act would bring the law up to date by applying the same age and hour requirements to children working in agriculture as for children working in other occupations.  It would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to prohibit the employment of children aged 13 and younger in agriculture. It would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work only for limited hours outside of school hours, and would raise the age for hazardous agricultural work to 18, as is already the law for all other sectors. Existing exemptions that allow children to work on farms owned or operated by their parents would remain intact.

The CARE Act not only addresses the double-standards in US child labor law, but would also help bring the US into compliance with international law.  In 1999, the US was one of the first countries to ratify the ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, which prohibits work that is likely to harm the health, safety, or morals of children under the age of 18. The guidelines that accompany the convention recommend that prohibited forms of child labor that include excessive hours, work with dangerous machinery, equipment or tools, and exposure to hazardous substances-conditions that are typical for many child farmworkers.  

We urge you to ensure that all working children are protected equally, and to co-sponsor the Children's Act for Responsible Employment and support its quick adoption.

 

Sincerely yours, 

Lois Whitman

Executive Director

Children's Rights Division