Death of two 14-year-olds girls in an Illinois field underscores the need for an overhaul of U.S. child labor laws, groups condemn new laws that weaken protections for young workers
August 1, 2011
Washington, DC—The tragic death of two 14-year-old girls while detasseling corn in Tampico, Illinois last week stands as a painful reminder that U.S. child labor laws are inadequate and efforts by states to weaken current protections are further endangering the lives of American children.
Hannah Kendall and Jade Garza, two friends from Sterling, Illinois, were electrocuted while they worked with a crew of about 70 others, including workers as young as 13. Ten workers were injured in the electrocution incident whose cause is still unknown. According to news reports, the girls were employed by Monsanto Corporation, which was acting as a contractor. They worked in a muddy field, detasseling corn—a common job for many teenagers in the Midwest that involves removing tassels to encourage cross-pollination—when they received a shock from a nearby center pivot irrigation system. Fourteen-year-old Delanie Knapp, was taken to a Rockford hospital and listed in “serious” condition. Seven other workers were taken to the hospital and released.
“We are devastated by this terrible news and our thoughts go out to the families of these young workers,” said Sally Greenberg, the co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) and the executive director of the National Consumers League (NCL). “Across the nation, legislators in Maine and Wisconsin have weakened child labor laws by allowing teens to work longer hours in recent months. In Missouri, the state’s child labor inspection team was eliminated. Legislators need to know that child labor laws save lives and any weakening of protections has very serious potential consequences.”
Agriculture is consistently ranked as one of the two or three most dangerous industries in the U.S. Each year, NCL produces an annual report titled, “The Five Most Dangerous Jobs for Teens” and agriculture regularly tops the list. “Young teen should not be allowed to work in the fields, given the dangers posed by chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as well as heavy machinery and razor-sharp tools,” said Reid Maki, coordinator of the CLC, which believes that 14- and 15-year-olds should only be allowed to perform agricultural jobs deemed safe for them by the Secretary of Labor after careful evaluation. In March of this year, two 18-year-old Illinois teens were electrocuted as they worked with irrigation piping.
“As a child, I spent every summer since the age of 12 detasseling cornfields in Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa,” said Norma Flores López. “This work is grueling and puts children’s health at risk, yet exemptions to U.S. child labor laws allow 12- and 13-year-olds to perform back-breaking farm labor for very low pay.” Flores López is the Director of the Children in the Fields Campaign for the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs and the chair of the CLC’s Domestic Committee.
The CLC strives to protect children around the world, including the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 children of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the U.S. who work long hours in the fields. The CLC is working to help pass the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE), HR 2234, federal legislation to remove the child labor exemptions for agriculture and prohibit farm work for kids under 14 (unless children are working on a family farm for their parents). The proposed law would require the U.S. Secretary of Labor to determine if specific farm jobs like detasseling corn are safe enough for 14-and 15-year-olds to perform and would prevent 16- and 17-year-olds from doing agricultural jobs already determined to be hazardous.
“Children working as farm laborers suffer serious educational impacts in addition to the physical health threats,” said Toni Cortese, the Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.5 million public service employees. “They drop out at rates several times that of other kids because they miss so much school and experience so many disruptions in their education. They are sacrificing their futures to put fruits and vegetables on our tables and it isn’t right.”
“The U.S. has worked diligently to reduce child labor around the world, but it must address its own child labor problem,” said Kailash Satyarthi, Chairperson of the Global March Against Child Labor. “Internationally, child labor in agriculture is the most frequent type of child labor, experienced by 60 to 70 percent of child laborers around the world. The conditions experienced by migrant children in the U.S. are not much different than the conditions experienced by child laborers in the cocoa fields of Ghana or the school children who are forced to pick cotton in Uzbekistan.”
About the Child Labor Coalition. The Child Labor Coalition is composed of 28 organizations, representing consumers, labor unions, educators, human rights and labor rights groups, child advocacy groups, and religious and women’s groups. It was established in 1989, and is co-chaired by the National Consumers League and the American Federation of Teachers. Its mission is to protect working youth and to promote legislation, programs, and initiatives to end child labor exploitation in the United States and abroad.
About the Global March Against Child Labor. The Global March Against Child Labour was established in 1998 to plan and coordinate a worldwide social mobilisation effort involving thousands of organisations and people in all four corners of the globe to raise awareness of child labour and to support the adoption of ILO Convention No. 182 on worst forms of child labour in Geneva in 1999. It is a global network of trade union, teachers’ and civil society organisations that work together towards the shared development goals of eliminating and preventing all forms of child labour and ensuring access by all children to free, meaningful and good quality public education. Global March mobilises and supports its constituents to contribute to local, national, regional and global efforts and support for a range of international instruments relating to the protection and promotion of children’s rights and engages with UN and international and inter-governmental agencies on the same.