National Consumers League

Child Labor An American Issue, House Subcommittee Discovers


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by Reid Maki, Coordinator of NCL's Child Labor Coalition

Americans tend to think that child labor is something that happens in poor, third world countries, but there’s plenty to worry about in our own back yard, according to the witnesses at a congressional hearing late last month before the House Education and Labor Committee’s Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.

National Consumers League Executive Director Sally Greenberg, who also serves as co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition, told the subcommittee that DOL needs more resources to enforce child labor laws. “Every 10 days in America, a young person is killed at work. Every day, more than 100 young workers under the age of 19 are seriously injured or become ill from their jobs,” she said, adding that the number of DOL child labor investigations “has declined drastically”—the number of investigations fell by nearly half from 2004 to 2006. “The number of child labor investigations conducted in 2006—1,344—was the lowest in the last ten years for which we have data, and may be lowest in many decades.”

With fewer than 750 labor investigators for the entire nation, DOL is conducting so little enforcement the department has become a “paper tiger,” said Greenberg.

Norma Flores, a former child farm worker, testified about her early years in America’s fields harvesting fruits and vegetables. She and her sisters began working long hours when they turned 12 “during our summers and any other school breaks we had,” Flores told subcommittee members. “Full-time work weeks now meant 70 hours— including weekends—for weeks at a time with no days off,” she explained.

Advocates estimate that 400,000 children help their impoverished migrant and seasonal farmworker families in the fields each year. Exemptions to U.S. labor law allow the youth to work at younger ages in agriculture than they could in any other industry.

“One of the most terrifying moments of my life was when an airplane accidently sprayed pesticides over the field my family and I were working in,” Flores recalled. The farm contractor told the panicked family to move to a different field and keep working, she said.

David Strauss, the executive director of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, told Subcommittee Chair Lynn Woolsey (D.-Calif.) that federal law offers working children like Norma few protections. Strauss explained that the law’s only requirement is that the teen agricultural workers “not work during school hours when school is in session. That is virtually the only restriction in federal law, along with a prohibition against hazardous employment for children 15 and younger.”

“A 12-year-old kid can work 12 or more hours a day during the summer, on weekends, or during the school year as long as those hours are outside of school time,” Strauss added. “I have spoken with teenage children of migrant families who worked after school until midnight during a heavy harvest.”

Strauss noted that kids pay a heavy toll for their hard work. They often leave their homes and schools to begin seasonal work before the end of the school year, and they sometimes return after the school year has already begun. Falling behind, they quickly become discouraged and, according to estimates, as many as two out of three drop out of school.

“Without a diploma, without good job skills, they often end up continuing the cycle of poverty their parents hoped they could break,” said Strauss.

Strauss reminded subcommittee members that legislation by Rep. Louise Roybal-Allard—The Children’s Act for Responsible Employment— would address the issue of agricultural child labor and level the playing field so that child farmworkers are treated like other children. The legislation would keep kids under 14 out of the fields unless they are working on their own family’s farm (in which case they would be exempt). Kids 14 and 15 would only be allowed to work in the fields if the Secretary of Labor determined that the work is safe.

Alexander Passantino, the acting administrator of the Wage and Hour Division who represented DOL, claimed investigators always look for child labor even when they are investigated other labor violations.

NCL's Greenberg made several recommendations, including asking Congress to double the number of labor inspectors. She urged passage of the CARE Act to protect children working in agriculture, and she called on DOL to revise the “hazardous orders” to prohibit teens from working in dangerous agricultural jobs. Greenberg asked DOL to conduct targeted child labor investigations of agriculture and meatpacking, two industries with high injury rates.