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U.S. Law Doesn't Protect Child Farmworkers. Does Congress Even Care?

The New York Times ran a feature on Wednesday about how cigarette giant Philip Morris is benefiting from the use of child labor on tobacco farms in Kazakhstan. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented how children in the Kazakh fields face routine, dangerous exposure to nicotine and polluted drinking water. When HRW presented its findings to Philip Morris, the company vowed to change its purchasing policies in the Central Asian country and to step up efforts to eliminate all child labor.

Philip Morris, however, isn’t the only entity that needs to adjust its policies on child farmworkers. Think bigger. Think… the United States.

U.S. law makes it illegal for most employers to hire children under 14 and to work children under 16 for more than three hours a day during the school year. But the standards for agriculture are different. On all farms, children as young as 12 can work; on small farms, children of any age can work. It may sound innocuous—and make you conjure up idyllic images straight out of "Little House on the Prairie." But, today, U.S. agriculture is a massive industry, and the exemptions for farms in federal law allow for real abuses.

Back in May, HRW released a report documenting children as young as six working in fields. “For too many of these children, farmwork means an early end to childhood, long hours at exploitative wages, and risk to their health and sometimes their lives,” the report says. It found children, many of whom are migrants, working for less than minimum wage and for ten or more hours each day. U.S. law also stipulates that the minimum age for working under hazardous conditions is 18—except in agriculture, where it's 16. That means many child farmworkers, of which HRW says there are hundreds of thousands, risk potential pesticide poisoning and serious injury, on top of dehydration, heat exhaustion, and even academic failure. Overall, HRW found that children who work in agriculture drop out of school at four times the national rate.

The Obama administration recently began cracking down on farms that violate child labor laws. But enforcement can only do so much when the laws themselves are so bad. Last September, Congresswoman Louise Roybal-Allard, a California Democrat, introduced the Children's Act for Responsible Employment (CARE), which would place the same requirements on child labor in agriculture as in other sectors, raise the minimum age of hazardous work on farms to 18, and increase penalties for violations of these new standards. The House Education and Labor committee, however, hasn’t acted on it. Over in the Senate, Tom Harkin has said he will introduce a bill similar to Roybal-Allard’s. He hasn’t yet, but his interest seems to be real. (Harkin issued a press release in response to this week’s Times story, calling on Kazakhstan “to fulfill its international obligations and enforce its own child labor and wage and hour laws.”)

Indeed, it’s slow going for advocates of better child labor laws—and they could have an even tougher fight ahead. The Roybal-Allard bill, which awaits action in a House subcommittee, has 102 Democratic sponsors. But not a single Republican has signed on.