Damaris was 13 years old when she began working in the broccoli and
lettuce fields of Arizona. During peak season, she would often work 14
hours a day in 100-degree temperatures. For months on end she suffered
frequent nosebleeds and nearly passed out on several occasions. Despite
illness from exposure to dangerous pesticides, she kept on working. "It
was very difficult," she told Human Rights Watch. "I just endured it."
Between 300,000 and 800,000 children like Damaris are working as hired
laborers in commercial U.S. agriculture today. These farm-worker children
weed cotton fields, pick lettuce and cantaloupe and climb rickety ladders
in cherry and apple orchards. They often work 12 or more hours a day,
sometimes beginning at 3 or 4 in the morning. They risk serious illness,
including cancer and brain damage, from exposure to pesticides, and
suffer high rates of injury from working with sharp tools and heavy
Despite long and grueling days, some child farmers are paid only $2 an
hour. Many of them drop out of school, too exhausted to study. Nearly
half of them never graduate from high school. Lacking other options, many
are relegated to a lifetime of low-wage field labor that perpetuates the
cycle of farm-worker poverty through generations.
Agriculture is the most dangerous occupation open to minors in the
United States. Work-related fatalities among child farm workers are five
times higher than for children working in non-agricultural jobs, and an
estimated 100,000 children suffer agriculture-related injuries annually
in the United States.
The long-term effects of pesticide exposure are not yet completely
known, but have been linked to cancer, brain tumors, brain damage and
birth defects. Child farm workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch for a
recent study described working in fields still wet with poison and being
exposed to pesticide drift from spraying in nearby fields. One
16-year-old boy told us that he mixed and sprayed pesticides several
times a week, but wore no mask or protective clothing because his
employer told him he had nothing to worry about.
Despite the hazards of agricultural work, current U.S. labor law
allows children working in agriculture to work at younger ages and for
longer hours than minors in other jobs. Surprisingly, the 14-hour days
worked by a 13-year-old are not prohibited by law. Children as young as
12 can legally work unlimited hours in agriculture. In contrast, kids
cannot work in the fast-food industry before age 14 and are limited to no
more than three hours of work on a school day until age 16. This legal
double standard amounts to de facto race-based discrimination, since the
vast majority of farm-worker children are Latino and other racial
This shameful tolerance for abusive child labor in American fields
stands in stark contrast to U.S. leadership in combating child labor
overseas. The U.S. devotes $30 million a year to international programs
to end abusive child labor--a tenfold increase from just two years ago.
Last year, the U.S. became one of the first countries to ratify a new
international convention to eliminate the worst forms of child labor,
including such practices as child slavery, debt bondage, sexual
exploitation and forced labor. Congress recently acted to deny trade
preferences to countries that fail to meet their legal obligations to end
such abusive child labor.
This commitment to abolish inappropriate child labor abroad must be
matched by a commitment to protect children from abusive labor here in
the United States. Labor laws that exempt agriculture from basic child
labor restrictions date back to 1938, a time when nearly a quarter of
Americans still lived on farms, and Congress was understandably reluctant
to regulate the ability of children to work their parents' land. The
reality today is vastly different. The overwhelming number of child farm
workers are not working their families' farms, but are hired laborers in
large-scale commercial agriculture.
Earlier this month, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa)--backed by the Clinton
administration and a national coalition of more than 50 child labor
organizations--introduced legislation to update child labor laws, to
bring protections for child farm workers into line with those for other
working children. He also proposes to toughen civil and criminal
penalties for willful child labor violations.
Child labor in U.S. agriculture is America's shameful secret. Our
laudable efforts to protect children from exploitative labor overseas
appear deeply hypocritical unless matched by efforts such as Harkin's to
protect children here at home.
Victoria Riskin and Mike Farrell Are Co-chairs of the California Committee (South) of Human Rights Watch.
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times