U.S. Child Labor: Becoming the Change We Want to See

Numerous media stories have been circulating covering the three newly released reports on International Child Labor and Forced Labor by the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL).  The reports include prescriptions that could have an enormous impact in putting an end to these labor practices. During the official release event at the USDOL on September 26, there was a great deal of rhetoric concerning “the most vulnerable members of society” and “the millions of forgotten and voiceless.”

The release of these reports, which include: Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor; List of Goods Produced by Child or Forced Labor; and List of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor pursuant to Executive Order 13126 of 1999, generated a renewed interest in the problem of child labor around the world.

According to the Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB), there are 20 million people in forced labor, 6 million of whom are children. And, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) there are 215 million children working throughout the world; an estimated 115 million of those children are trapped in the most hazardous forms of child labor. Agriculture falls under the worst forms of child labor as defined by section (d) of Article 3 of ILO Convention No. 182; in the U.S. there are as many as 500,000 child farmworkers.

The numbers are staggering and often times prompt the question: Why are children working in the first place? There are a multitude of reasons, depending on the region and individual circumstances. Two prevailing factors remain the same in almost all cases of child labor:  (1) poverty; and (2) legislation and enforcement. The cyclical nature of poverty perpetuates child labor. Because these children’s work typically hinders educational attainment, they often repeat the pattern with their children, and thus the cycle of poverty persists.

It’s no secret child labor is a contentious issue in any country, whether there are laws in place or not. This is true even in the U.S., as evidenced by the controversy caused by the USDOL’s September 2011 proposed changes to Hazardous Occupations Order for Agriculture.

Many Americans do not realize child labor is even an issue in our country.  The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets a minimum age of 14 for most employment in non-hazardous, non-agricultural industries in the U.S. Yet, children are permitted under the FLSA to work at a much younger age in agriculture than in other sectors.  Although the USDOL reports on child labor are not focused on the U.S., section 4.3 in List of Goods Produced by Child or Forced Labor is dedicated to child labor in the U.S., and states “preventing child labor requires ongoing effort and vigilance.”

Although the information in these reports is primarily meant to raise awareness, it also serves as a call to action and an opportunity for collaboration with foreign governments. In section 4.4 of List of Goods Produced by Child or Forced Labor, the report notes the successful eradication of the worst forms of child labor requires enactment of comprehensive legal framework, vigorous enforcement of child labor and forced labor laws, and accurate data. The U.S. could ultimately play a large role in bringing an end to the labor practices that cause and perpetuate worldwide child labor by carrying out due diligence of labor rights in the supply chains of many companies.

There is a place the U.S. can have a much more profound impact on eradicating child labor. By eliminating the worst forms of child labor on American farms that are presently legal, the country could lead by example. We encourage the USDOL to continue to be a leader in the elimination of child labor around the world, but also ask the agency to look further into how it can implement protective policy measures to protect the lives of American children employed in agriculture.

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