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With warm weather approaching and the school year coming to a close, children around the country are eagerly anticipating their summer vacations. Many look forward to day camp, family trips, or long days spent by the pool. However, for thousands of U.S. farmworker children, the impending summer months mean long days (often six to seven days a week) of hard labor under the hot sun picking fruit, hoeing cotton, or detasseling corn. The suntans these children will earn won’t come from playing on the beach.

This past weekend, 60 Minutes featured a moving story on the many migrant families that rely on their children’s labor in order to make ends meet. The children featured in the story represent the nearly 400,000 youth currently estimated to be working in the U.S agricultural sector, some as young as 12 years old. In some sectors, children as young as 6 or 7 are already working on a part-time basis. When asked what they want to do when they grow up, all the youth interviewed in the story insisted that they will break the cycle of hard migrant labor in their families by attending college and getting a good job. Armando, a bright-eyed twelve-year-old who currently works ten hours a day picking tomatoes, replied that one day he plans to become a veterinarian. However, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watchfarmworker children are estimated to drop out of school at four times the national rate.

Perhaps most compelling about the young people featured in the 60 minutes piece was their humble willingness to work in order to help their parents. They recognize how hard their parents work to provide for their basic needs, and they want to do what they can to contribute to the family income. Migrant farmworkers often earn less than the minimum wage, and a day’s wages can easily be lost due to rain or other extreme weather conditions. Parents who bring their children to the fields to work alongside them often do so out of pure necessity, and currently U.S. labor law allows them to do so.

The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) currently contains a serious flaw which allows children as young as twelve to work in the agricultural sector for unlimited hours out of the school day. On the other hand, a young person working in an air-conditioned movie theatre or fast-food restaurant must be at least 15 or 16 years old, and there are strict limits on the numbers of hours they can work during the school week. It simply makes no sense that children working in agriculture, one of the most dangerous occupations, should receive fewer protections than children working in other sectors. While there are certainly benefits to having children gain early work experience, such experience should never come at the expense of a child’s health or education. Our child labor laws should be held to the same standards across the board in order to ensure the healthy development and academic success of all children working in the U.S.

For more information on child labor in U.S. agriculture:
Human Rights Watch Report: Fields of Peril: Child Labor in U.S. Agriculture
Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs: Children in the Fields Campaign

Cross posted with author permission from the First Focus blog

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