by Fred Kammer, SJ
Human Rights Watch reported on May 5, 2010, that the United States is failing to protect hundreds of thousands of children engaged in often grueling and dangerous farmwork. The international rights watchdog called on Congress to amend federal law that permits children under age 18 to work for hire in agriculture at far younger ages, for far longer hours, and in far more hazardous conditions than in any other occupation or industry.
"Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture" [99 pages] found that child farmworkers risked their safety, health, and education on commercial farms across the United States. "The United States is a developing country when it comes to child farmworkers," said Zama Coursen-Neff, the report's author. "Children who pick America's food should at least have the same protections as those who serve it."
Working often for 10 or more hours a day, 5 to 7 days a week, children as young as 12 years old typically earn far less than minimum wage. Their pay is often further cut because employers underreport hours and force them to spend their own money on tools, gloves, and drinking water that their employers are legally obligated to provide.
Agriculture is the most dangerous work open to children in this country, according to the Centers for Disease Control's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Children risk pesticide poisoning, serious injury, and heat illness. They suffer fatalities at more than four times the rate of children working in other jobs. Many told Human Rights Watch that their employers did not provide drinking water, hand-washing facilities, or toilets. Girls and women in these jobs are exceptionally vulnerable to sexual abuse. As a result of their working hours, child agricultural workers drop out of school at four times the national rate.
In response to the Human Rights report, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis released the following statement, also on May 5th:
“The Human Rights Watch report released today documents the many dangerous jobs that U.S. farm worker children perform. It details the long hours many of them work and the negative impacts on their health, education and well-being. .. We simply cannot—and this administration will not—stand by while oungsters working on farms are robbed of their childhood. [Emphasis added.]
“Under my direction, the U.S. Department of Labor will continue stepping up enforcement efforts on behalf of all farm workers—including the youngest among them—regardless of status. We have added more than 250 newe Wage and Hour Division field investigators in the last year alone, and we plan to bring on even more. …
“Building a stronger legal regime to protect U.S. child farm workers clearly requires a multifaceted strategy. Tighter regulation and better law enforcement are a critical part of this effort, but more robust legislation is important as well. …”
U.S. laws are notorious in their failure to extend to farmworkers the protections which our laws provide to other workers in terms of wages, benefits, working conditions, and the protection of children.
In the annual Labor Day letter from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2007, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn summarized the long-term position of the Church on the rights of workers, including farmworkers:
…human dignity is a gift from God, not a status to be earned. Fundamental rights to work, decent wages, safe working conditions, to have a voice in decisions, and the freedom to choose to join a union do not depend on where you were born or when you came to our nation. Human dignity and human rights are not commodities to be allocated according to where you come from, when you got here, or what documents you possess. 
We eat the food picked by hands of farm workers--children and adults--but our nation stubbornly refuses to extend our own hands to lift the unjust burdens from their shoulders.
For the full text of the Human Rights Watch report: read more >
Most Rev. Nicholas DiMarzio, Ph.D., D.D., Labor Day 2007: A Time to Remember; A Time to Recommit, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, September 3, 2007.
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