On December 5, the Wall Street Journal featured the article, “Farmers Contest Child-Labor Rules.” Disappointingly, the author failed to provide readers an accurate and comprehensive representation of the facts surrounding child labor in U.S. agriculture. As a former migrant farmworker child, I know first-hand that working long days under the hot sun harvesting vegetables is nothing like baking cookies with my mother, as is suggested in the article. The dangers are nothing to be taken lightly. As a farmworker advocate, I have become even more keenly aware of the lingering effects hazardous farm work can have on youth.
Children, because they are still developing mentally and physically, are not equipped to work in dangerous jobs. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), between 1995 and 2002, an estimated 907 youth died on farms in the United States, making that over 100 preventable deaths of children per year. Half of those children who die are under 15 years of age.
It is difficult to dispute the dangers farmworker youth face each day when the headlines report the untimely deaths of youth on farms, such as the Illinois teens Jade Garza and Hannah Kendall, both 14, who were electrocuted this past summer. Instead of addressing facts documenting the dangerous reality, the debate has centered on whether these risks are worth the preservation of these agricultural “traditions.” Additionally, most Americans are unaware of the other youth working in agriculture: the children of migrant and seasonal farmworkers. These children have few possibilities of owning their own farms in the future, despite the number of years they work in the fields or how young they start to work on farms. These children are not taught lessons on what is the best type of crop to grow by the farm owners whose farms they work on; instead they are taught to push their bodies to the breaking point to earn the minimum wage.
Today in America, it is illegal for children to smoke cigarettes due to health dangers, yet children as young as 12 are allowed to work harvesting and curing tobacco. According to a report from U.S. Public Health Service, children working in tobacco fields may be exposed to nicotine levels equivalent to smoking 36 cigarettes per day. These are the types of dangers the proposed hazard orders will protect farmworker children from.
Contrary to some claims, the proposed changes to the agricultural hazardous orders will not keep youth off of farms. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, children are allowed to start working on farms at the age of 12, and can begin performing hazardous work at the age of 16; this will remain true whether the proposed changes are implemented or not. Furthermore, the family farm exemption will not be changed by the proposed hazardous orders.
In order to have a thriving American agricultural industry, the conversation must be around topics such as sustainability and the equal access to capital for those trying to start their own small farm. Protecting the well-being of children should be our priority, not the business of farming. All children deserve to be protected equally under the law and no one industry deserves this kind of exemption at the expense of farmworker children’s health and futures.