GAO report raises concern over the health and safety of child farmworkers in the U.S.
WASHINGTON — In the wake of a new child labor report by the Government Accountability Office, the Child Labor Coalition joins Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard,-Calif., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., in voicing concern for the health and safety of 2.5 million U.S. children who work for wages, particularly those who toil in sectors like agriculture with elevated injury and fatality rates.
“The scourge of child labor still haunts America,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League and a co-chair of the CLC.
The new report “Working Children: Federal Injury Data and Compliance Strategies Could Be Strengthened” (November 2018) updates a 2002 GAO report on child labor in the United States. Earlier this week, the GAO issued the updated report, which had been requested by Reps. Roybal-Allard and DeLauro last year. Despite the difference of 16 years, the two reports reached similar conclusions, calling for better data. The new report also called for better coordination between the Wage and Hour Division and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — both entities at the Department of Labor — to enforce child labor laws.
The GAO found that while fewer than 5.5 percent of working children in the United States toiled on farms, the agricultural sector accounted for more than 50 percent of child labor fatalities. In the years 2003 to 2016, 237 children died in farm-related work accidents, representing four times the number of deaths of any other sector (construction and mining had 59 over the 14-year period).
“The GAO report’s findings are damning,” said Roybal-Allard and Rep. DeLauro in a joint statement. “This report confirms that child labor is contributing to a devastating amount of fatalities in the United States — disproportionately so in the agricultural sector. In that industry, kids are often exposed to dangerous pesticides, heavy machinery, and extreme heat, and they are being killed as a result. That is unacceptable.”
The study examined recent data on children at work as well as child work fatalities and injuries and found significant data gaps and misaligned data. A data survey pilot project that sought improved data on workers ignored children entirely; it excluded “household children and working children on farms employing 10 or fewer workers,” noted the report’s authors, who concluded “DOL is missing opportunities to more accurately quantify injuries and illnesses to children, which could better inform its compliance and enforcement efforts.”
“The updated GAO report supports what child advocates have been seeing on the ground: the number of working children in the U.S. has been on the rise since 2011, while child labor continues to decrease around the world,” said Norma Flores Lopez, chair of the CLC’s Domestic Issues Committee. “American working children are inadequately protected while working in dangerous — sometimes fatal — industries, including agriculture. The U.S. Department of Labor must take immediate action to better protect our children by implementing the report’s recommendations. By providing equal protections for all working children, the U.S. DOL can improve its effectiveness in enforcing child labor laws and keep children safe.”
“The Child Labor Coalition has worked for nearly 30 years to safeguard child workers on farms,” said Reid Maki, director of child labor advocacy for NCL and coordinator of the CLC. “The United States has had glaringly weak agricultural child labor laws since the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act in the late 1930s. We allow children as young as 12 to work unlimited hours in agriculture, despite its known dangers.”
“Unfortunately,” added Maki, “in 2012, the Obama Administration abandoned attempts to prohibit more than one dozen agricultural tasks that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health had identified as too dangerous for children. The new GAO report confirms that although fatality rates have dropped to some extent, too many children continue to die on farms.”
“Our government must take these findings as a call to action and build on them to collect more robust data on injuries and illnesses faced by children in America’s workforce,” said Reps. Roybal-Allard and DeLauro.
“Good data will lead to better policy,” added the CLC’s Greenberg.
Given the prevalence of farm deaths and injuries, the enforcement of agricultural child labor laws is a concern. According to data in the GAO report, the Wage and Hour division found only 239 child labor violations in agriculture between 2010 and 2016. “That comes out to 34 violations a year — well less than one per state,” noted the CLC’s Maki. “We don’t believe that low number accurately reflects a lack of violations. Even with our weak child labor laws in agriculture, we think robust enforcement of our child labor laws would lead to many more citations and we urge Wage and Hour to pursue new enforcement strategies.”
Rep. Roybal-Allard has introduced legislation, the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment — CARE Act of 2017 — that would raise the minimum age of employment on farms to at least 14 and would ban hazardous work for 16- and 17-year-olds on farms that is currently permitted. “The CARE ACT would protect the health and safety of children and teens working on farms — and help keep farmworker children in school, where they need to stay,” said Lorretta Johnson, a co-chair of the CLC and the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers.