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American public: Young farmworkers deserve equal protection of child labor laws

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June 16, 2011

Contact: NCL Communications, (202) 835-3323, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Washington, DC – The vast majority of American consumers do not believe that 12- and 13-year-old children should be allowed to perform arduous agricultural work for long hours in the fields, and would not allow their own children to do commercial farm work at the young ages the government currently allows, according to a survey released today. The survey (questionnaire | tabular data | methodology), commissioned by the National Consumers League (NCL), the organization largely responsible for passing many of the nation’s first child labor laws in the early 19th century , reveals that 81 percent of consumers—four out of five—agree that child labor laws should protect children equally, regardless of the industry they work in. Two in three survey respondents “strongly agreed” that protections should be equal. Only 1 in 7 favored lesser protections for children working in agriculture.

According to the survey of 1,011 adults fielded June 3-6, 2011 by ORC International, only 3 percent of those with children in the house would let their own children under the age of 14 work more than 40 hours a week in the fields. Yet, federal law currently allows farmworker children to work an unlimited number of hours in the fields (outside of school hours), and many farmworker children report working as many as 60 or 70 hours a week.

Many migrant farmworker children work long hours in the fields alongside their parents, harvesting fruits and vegetables. The children often begin working at the age of 12 because of exemptions in U.S. child labor law that excludes the agriculture industry from many labor protections.

The vast majority surveyed—83 percent—agreed that it is “not okay” for children as young as 12 and 13 to work long hours in the fields. Only 1 in 8 surveyed—and only 1 in 10 female respondents—said that the practice is okay. When asked what age they would let their own children work in the fields after school and during weekends, only 13 percent—or 1 in 8 respondents—said that they would allow a child under the age of 14 to work—a common practice in the agriculture industry today.

When it comes to working more than 40 hours in the fields, the majority of those with children in (64 percent) said that they would only let their children work if they were over 18.

“These survey results demonstrate that the public feels strongly that young children should not be toiling in the fields,” said Sally Greenberg, the Executive Director of NCL and a Co-chair of the NCL-coordinated Child Labor Coalition. “Legislation that would provide much needed protections for farmworker kids has languished for more than a decade. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard has tirelessly tried to remedy this tragic problem through the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE), which would remove the exemptions that threaten the health, safety, and education of these children. The passage of the CARE Act is long overdue.”

The survey also confirmed that Americans seem concerned that the food they purchase is not tainted by child labor. Nearly 6 in 10 survey respondents—59 percent—disagreed that “it is acceptable for a child under 14 to work for wages in the fields, harvesting produce to be sold in grocery stores.” An even larger percentage—67 percent—said that the United States should not import products made or harvested by children under the age of 14.

Americans expressed their desire that adult farmworkers earn a livable wage—87 percent agreed that the men and women who harvest fruits and vegetables should receive a sustainable wage. Despite this finding, government data suggests that most farmworker families get by on $17,000 a year—about one-third of the living wage calculated for a family of four in typical farmworker community (data based on Eagle Pass, Texas).

“If Americans knew what truly dangerous workplaces farms are, they would be even more outraged by this form of child labor,” said Reid Maki, Coordinator of the CLC and NCL’s Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards. “One of our main concerns is the impact pesticides might be having on these kids who work long hours in treated fields, often with little or no protection.”

For several years, NCL has listed “harvesting work in agriculture” as one of the five most dangerous jobs for teen workers in an annual report on teen occupational safety. Currently, U.S. law allows children as young as 12 years old to legally work in commercial agriculture, while children of the same age are prohibited from working in nearly all other industries (with only a few exceptions such as delivering newspapers). An estimated 400,000 children work in America’s fields, often working 8-, 9-, and 10-hour backbreaking shifts in intense heat, often exposed to pesticide application, runoff, and drift. While only about eight percent of youth are employed in agriculture, the industry comprises 40 percent of child worker fatalities.

NCL, which coordinates the 28-member CLC, commissioned the national random-sample telephone survey to gain an understanding of consumers’ views on child labor in American commercial agriculture. The margin of error of the phone survey sample of 1,011 adults is plus or minus 3 percent. Smaller subgroups have larger error margins.

For additional information regarding the survey results, visit www.nclnet.org.

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About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America's pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.