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New Bill Would Protect Child Farmworkers in the US

Proposed Legislation Comes as Labor Violations Involving Children Are on the Rise

A 15-year-old girl works on a tobacco farm in North Carolina. July 2013. © 2013 Human Rights Watch

A bill introduced today in the US Senate would strengthen protections for children working on farms. The new legislative push comes amid rising child labor violations and backsliding on child labor protections by some US states.

Senator Ben Ray Luján’s bill, the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment in Agriculture, or CARE Act of 2024, would raise the age of children who can work in agriculture to 14, and for hazardous work to 18, in line with all other industries. The bill would also increase penalties for child labor violations. There are exemptions for children who work on family farms.

Child workers in the US face the greatest risks to their lives and health in agriculture. 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. Sixty-two percent of work-related deaths among children under 16 during the same period also occurred in agriculture. Thousands of children are injured while working on farms each year.

Human Rights Watch has interviewed hundreds of child farmworkers who have risked their lives and health while working in agriculture. Children worked long shifts in excessive heat, with limited breaks and hydration, without safety training or protection, and exposed to toxic pesticides. Latinx children and families are disproportionately impacted.

Current federal labor law allows children to work on farms of any size for any number of hours, outside of school hours, starting from age 12. In all other sectors, 16 is the basic minimum work age and 14- and 15-year-olds can only work for limited hours in certain jobs. Children in agriculture can do hazardous work at age 16, compared to age 18 for other sectors.

A previous version of the CARE Act introduced in the House of Representatives in June 2023 has 45 co-sponsors. Thirty-four organizations, including labor, child, and farmworker rights groups, have endorsed the new Senate bill. Majorities in the House and Senate would need to vote for the bill before the president could sign it into law.

The CARE Act is critical to address the dangers that child farmworkers face every day across the country. Congress should pass this bill without delay.

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