National Consumers League

New study confirms what we already knew: child labor in agriculture is dangerous

Reid Maki is the director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League and he coordinates the Child Labor Coalition.

There is some welcome but scary new research out about the impact of child labor on child farmworkers. At an online meeting of the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), co-chaired by the National Consumers League, last week, we heard from two researchers at the Wake Forest School of Medicine who told us about findings that came from a survey their team had conducted involving 202 child farmworkers between the ages of 10 and 17 in North Carolina. The child laborers worked in about a dozen crops, but most recently in four: tobacco, berries, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes—with tobacco being the most common by a large margin.

Alarming to the many of the advocates in the room, Dr. Thomas Arcury, director of the Center for Worker Health at Wake Forest, said that the survey results revealed a “substantial number of injuries” reported in the prior year. Two-thirds reported an injury of some kind, while more than a quarter of child workers  had suffered an injury the researchers considered traumatic during the year. Nearly a quarter had cut themselves in the fields, and muscular-skeletal injuries were common—shoulder pain being the most typical—as were dermatological injuries, which included rashes, burns, and sunburns.

Only 4.5 percent of injured workers received medical care. The same percent missed school because of their injuries. A higher percentage switched to different or easier tasks due to their injury.

The injuries were more commonly reported by older workers, migrant workers, and children who had worked fewer weeks. The reasons for higher injury rates for these types of workers can only be speculated at, suggested Arcury. Older workers may feel pressure to work at a faster pace, he speculated. Injured migrant children were much more likely to receive medical care by a large margin— 16.7 percent—versus 1.8 percent for non-migrant children. Similarly, they were more likely to miss school by a significant margin.

During Q&A, Dr. Arcury agreed with a question arguing that the “piece-rate” payment system (based on the idea that the more buckets of fruits or vegetables you fill and the faster you pick, the more you get paid) helps pressure workers to work to their maximum pace and was exploitative. “It’s absolutely inhumane,” he said.

Nearly half of the children in the survey suffered symptoms that correlated with heat-related illness, said fellow researcher Taylor Arnold, making it the primary negative aspect of doing farm work reported by the child survey respondents. Once again, older teens were more likely to report heat-related illness symptoms.

Nearly three in 10 reported dizziness from working in the heat. More than one in five reported sudden muscle cramps; one in 12 said they had nausea or vomited, 6.1 percent said they felt confused while working, and fainting was experienced by 1.8 percent.

In his presentation, Arnold quoted one 16-year-old describing tobacco work:

“Well it’s hot. It’s really hot, and you have to work with everybody’s pace so you won’t be left behind. And if you’re left behind, the boss man will like scream at you and just tell you to go faster or if not then he’s going to replace you with someone else.”

He quoted another 17-year-old tobacco worker who said her crew leader wouldn’t let her drink water despite the excessive heat. Another reported seeing a girl who had collapsed on the ground from heat.

A 15-year-old working in tomatoes told researchers:

“….sometimes…I feel like I’m really dizzy because of the sun. And there was – last year, the first day we got here, I got really, really dizzy. And I was going sideways. So I had to step out.”

The child workers said they engaged in numerous behaviors to avoid heat stress: they drank extra water, sought out shade, took extra breaks, changed work hours, went into air-conditioned areas (presumably breaks in automobiles), and changed work tasks. Of these, air-conditioned breaks seemed to have a contrary impact and was associated with suffering more heat-related symptoms, said Arnold. Those who reported taking more breaks had lower levels of heat-related illness. But, at times, there is a crew leader yelling at the workers to work harder and faster, so breaks are not exactly encouraged.

The presentation concluded with a recommendation that we at the CLC whole-heartedly agree with: Arcury supports closing the loopholes in U.S. child labor law that allow children to work at younger ages. “It’s hard to believe in 2020 that we have different rules for kids in farm work, despite it being such a hazardous sector,” he said.

The CLC works to advance federal legislation called the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety that would close these loopholes and extend legal protections to child workers in agriculture that are enjoyed by children who work in other sectors. We urge readers to call their Member of Congress and ask them to support CARE, H.R. 3394, by co-sponsoring it.

We also support legislation—appropriately named the Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act—that would ban work by children in tobacco fields because of the risk of nicotine poisoning. Many children interviewed by Human Rights Watch in a study published in 2014 reported symptoms that correlated with nicotine poisoning. We ask readers to call their Member of Congress and urge them to co-sponsor H.R. 3229 in the House and S. 1283 in the Senate.

The new research by Tom Arcury and Taylor Arnold and their colleagues confirms our belief that agriculture is simply too dangerous a sector to have widespread exemptions to U.S. child labor law. The researchers found children as young as 10 working in conditions that are clearly dangerous. Let’s close those loopholes now and give child farmworkers the same protections that all other children enjoy.