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May 2, 2023

The Honorable Julie A. Su
Acting Secretary of Labor
US Department of Labor
200 Constitution Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20210

Dear Acting Secretary Su:

We write on behalf of Human Rights Watch, the Child Labor Coalition, Farmworker Justice, and First Focus on Children to urge you to take swift action to help end hazardous child labor in US agriculture. We would be grateful for the opportunity to meet with you in the coming weeks to discuss regulatory action the Department of Labor (DOL) should take to protect American child workers from danger.

Our organizations are committed to defending the rights and dignity of farmworkers,[1] and we have reported extensively on the health and safety risks children face while working in US agriculture under longstanding exemptions in the Fair Labor Standards Act.[2] We have urged Congress to pass legislation to provide child farmworkers with the same protections as other working children.[3] But irrespective of legislative change, the Department of Labor has the authority to take regulatory action to protect the youngest child farmworkers from injury and death.

Under US law, DOL has the responsibility to determine which jobs are particularly hazardous and prohibited for children under 16 working on farms, and children under 18 working in all other sectors. The list of hazardous agricultural occupations has not been updated since 1970 and is far too limited in scope. The list of hazardous non-agricultural occupations was updated in 2010.

Thousands of children are injured while working on farms each year.[4] According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 40 percent of child workers under 18 who died on the job between 2018 and 2021 were working in agriculture. An alarming 62 percent of work-related deaths among children under 16 in that same time period occurred in agriculture.[5] DOL’s outdated regulations on hazardous occupations leave children under 16 working on farms as a uniquely unprotected population.

Since early 2022, we have been engaged in a constructive dialogue with your colleagues at DOL regarding the dire need for new rulemaking to update the list of hazardous agricultural occupations. We have appreciated our engagement with representatives of DOL and their interest in hearing from health and safety experts and members of affected communities regarding the need for new rulemaking. However, we were disappointed that this issue was not included in DOL’s latest regulatory agenda, and we are concerned that rulemaking will take considerable time.

It is an opportune time for DOL to commit to taking steps to protect the often-overlooked group of children involved in hazardous child labor on US farms. We are concerned with the increase in child labor violations in the US and the alarming moves by lawmakers in some states to weaken child labor protections.[6] Since the publication of the heartbreaking New York Times investigation on unaccompanied migrant children involved in hazardous child labor,[7] we have noted the strong interest from media and members of Congress in the issue of child labor. We appreciated DOL’s swift response to the investigation and commitment to strategic enforcement, as well as plans to establish an interagency task force on child labor.[8] However, increased enforcement will do little to help child farmworkers who lack the basic legal or regulatory protections given to other working children.

We hope DOL will commit in the coming years to undertake comprehensive rulemaking to evaluate and update the full list of hazardous occupations, in line with recommendations made in 2002 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).[9] But given the time constraints, ongoing leadership transition at DOL, and other ambitious rulemaking already underway, we would support DOL pursuing a phased approach beginning with more narrow, tailored rulemaking on two key issues: work with tobacco and work at heights.

The existing list of hazardous occupations does not restrict children from working with tobacco. Work with tobacco poses serious health and safety risks to child workers due to the nicotine in the crop, which can be absorbed through the skin and lead to acute nicotine poisoning, or Green Tobacco Sickness. Symptoms of nicotine poisoning experienced by child tobacco workers include nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness. There is near consensus across the industry that children under 16 should not be hired to work in tobacco.[10] But company and grower commitments are piecemeal and lack the enforcement power of federal regulations. We believe rulemaking on tobacco would not elicit strong pushback and may garner support from key industry and growers’ groups.

Existing regulations also fail to protect children from the dangers of working at heights. The current list of hazardous occupations only restricts children under 16 from work at heights greater than 20 feet, around the height of a two-story building.[11] By contrast, in the construction sector, employers must ensure fall protections for all workers doing any work taking place over six feet.[12] Child workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch have climbed to dangerous heights on ladders and in barns with nothing to protect them from falling. [13] New regulations restricting children from working at such dangerous heights could prevent children from suffering serious, or even fatal, occupational injuries.

We would be grateful for the opportunity to meet with you very soon to discuss how DOL could approach new rulemaking on these two issues as an important first step toward greater protection.

We have included with this letter various materials, including our December 2021 letter to former Secretary Marty Walsh, two letters from members of Congress for former Secretary Marty Walsh, and three memos we prepared for your colleagues at DOL with additional background information.

New rulemaking will protect American children’s health, safety, and dignity. Thank you for your attention to this important issue.

Kindly reply to Katherine La Puente to propose a time to meet.


Jo Becker
Children’s Rights Advocacy Director
Human Rights Watch

Reid Maki
Child Labor Coalition

Bruce Lesley
First Focus on Children

Alexis Guild
Vice President, Strategy and Programs
Farmworker Justice

Cc: Tanya L. Goldman, Senior Counselor to the Secretary; Jessica Looman, Principal Deputy Administrator, Wage and Hour Division; Rajesh D. Nayak, Assistant Secretary for Policy


[1] Human Rights Watch,; The Child Labor Coalition,; Farmworker Justice,; First Focus on Children,

[2] See for example, House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, “Children at Risk: Examining Workplace Protections for Child Farmworkers,” Hearing via Zoom, September 7, 2022, (accessed March 24, 2023). See also, Human Rights Watch, Fingers to the Bone: United States Failure to Protect Child Farmworkers (New York: Human Rights Watch, June 2000),; Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture (New York: Human Rights Watch, May 2010),; Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming (New York: Human Rights Watch, May 2014),; Teens of the Tobacco Fields: Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming (New York: Human Rights Watch, December 2015),; Child Labor Coalition, “201 Organizations Endorse Legislation (CARE Act) to Close Child Labor Loopholes that Endanger the Health, Safety and Educational Development of Farmworker Children,” April 1, 2022, (accessed March 27, 2023).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kitty J. Hendricks, Scott A. Hendricks, and Larry A. Layne, “A National Overview of Youth and Injury Trends on U.S. Farms, 2001-2014,” Journal of Agricultural Safety and Health, vol. 27, no. 3 (2021): p. 125, accessed May 5, 2022, doi: 10.13031/jash.14473.

[5] US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Fatal occupational injuries by selected worker characteristics and selected industry, All U.S., all ownerships, 2018 – 2021.” On file with Human Rights Watch.

[6] Jennifer Sherer and Nina Mast, Economic Policy Institute, “Child labor laws are under attack in states across the country: Amid increasing child labor violations, lawmakers must act to strengthen standards,” March 14, 2023, (accessed March 27, 2023).

[7] Hannah Dreier, “Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.,” New York Times, February 25, 2023, (accessed March 27, 2023).

[8] US Department of Labor, “Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services announce new efforts to combat exploitative child labor,” February 27, 2023, (accessed March 27, 2023).

[9] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), NIOSH Recommendations to the US Department of Labor for Changes to Hazardous Orders, May 3, 2002, (accessed March 27, 2023).

[10] Tripp Mickle, “Reynolds American, Altria Set New Policies for Young Field Workers,” Wall Street Journal, December 12, 2014, (accessed August 3, 2022); Council for Burley Tobacco, December 2014 Newsletter, vol. 1, no. 1, (accessed August 3, 2022); Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina, “TGANC Policy Position on Child Labor,” October 1, 2014. On file with Human Rights Watch. See also, Southern Farm Network (SFN) Today, “TGANC Policy Position on Child Labor,” October 2, 2014, (accessed August 10, 2022); GAP Connections, 2016 Guidelines, (accessed August 10, 2022).

[11] 29 C.F.R sec. 570.71(a)(6)

[12] 29 C.F.R. sec. 1926.501(b)(13)

[13] Human Rights Watch, Fields of Peril; Human Rights Watch, Tobacco’s Hidden Children.

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