Child labor has long been a feature of American agriculture. It is estimated that from 200,000 to 800,000 children and adolescents continue to work in agriculture today. Some travel with their families, while a growing number are unaccompanied youth (Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe [CSCE], 1993; Gabbard, Mines, & Boccalandro, 1994). This digest describes the statutory and economic factors contributing to the presence of children in fields alongside their parents and the impact of this labor on their health and educational progress.
By contrast, in agriculture, 14-year-olds can work for unlimited hours and 16-year-olds can perform even hazardous jobs--operating heavy equipment, working on a 20-foot ladder, or handling pesticides (FLSA, 29 U.S.C. '213[a]). Even younger children may be employed outside of school hours or to work alongside their parents. Children of any age can work on their parents' farm without any legal restrictions, even doing hazardous work (U.S. General Accounting Office [USGAO], 1992).
Few complaints of child labor are filed. Generally, violations are uncovered only when there is an accident or fatality and even then only minimal fines are imposed. In one instance, the Labor Department imposed a mere $1,000 fine on a grower when a 15-year-old worker was killed in an orchard. Only after a subsequent personal injury lawsuit resulted in a huge verdict for the victim's family did the grower even post a sign saying that children under 18 could not be employed on that farm (CSCE, 1993). The National Child Labor Committee estimates that there are at least 100,000 minors working on farms in violation of statutes each year (USGAO, 1992).
Economic necessity causes most child labor on farms. According to the Census Bureau, 46 percent of all farmworkers live below the poverty line (Mines, Gabbard, & Samardick, 1993). With average annual earnings of $6,500, many farmworkers do not earn enough to keep a family of four out of poverty even when both parents work (U.S. Commission on Agricultural Workers, 1992). Among migrant farmworkers (i.e., those who travel more than 75 miles from their home to work), the median income is even lower, only $5,000 per year, and 57 percent live in poverty. Even worse, an estimated 73 percent of migrant farmworkers' children under age 14 live in poverty (Gabbard, Mines, & Boccalandro, 1994).
Nor is the economic status of farmworkers improving. Real wages for all farmworkers have declined during the last decade (U.S. Commission on Agricultural Workers, 1992). In Florida, for example, orange pickers are paid $.55 per box, and this piece rate has remained unchanged for the past 25 years.
Payroll practices also work to the detriment of farmworker families. Frequently, the earnings of whole families are listed in payroll records under the name of the male head of household. This practice keeps other family members from earning the minimum wage or receiving credit towards Social Security, unemployment compensation, or workers' compensation benefits. By putting fewer workers on the payroll, some employers are able to escape coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act altogether, because the FLSA applies only to employers who use 500 man-days of labor in a calendar quarter (FLSA, 29 U.S.C. '213[a]; CSCE, 1993).
Children on farms climb ladders to prune trees, use knives to harvest crops, carry heavy buckets full of produce, drive or ride on tractors, and care for animals. Many work long hours, from early in the morning to late in the night. Job-related injuries and fatalities are caused primarily by tractors, farm machinery, pesticides, farm animals, falls, and drowning. The lack of sanitary facilities in the fields also leads to dermatitis, third-world levels of parasitic and urinary tract infection, respiratory illness, eye disease, and heat-related illness (52 Fed. Reg. 16,050, 1987).
Farmworker children, like their parents, are not fully covered by workers' compensation benefits when they are injured on the job. Only 13 jurisdictions provide the same workers compensation coverage for agricultural workers as for other employees. Fourteen states provide no mandatory coverage for farmworkers (Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Tennessee) and the remaining jurisdictions provide only limited protection (U.S. Department of Labor, 1996). Where there is partial coverage, some states, like Florida and Maryland, exempt small farms from the program; and others, like Maine, exclude from benefits those who do not work year-round.
Some American school districts tailor their schedules around harvest periods. In Maine, where child labor has long been crucial for the potato harvest, some school districts close during this time period.
Even when farmworker children attend school, they are often tired, irritable, or unable to concentrate due to hunger, illness, or fatigue (True, 1991). A 1991 California study, analyzing some of the factors that adversely affect migrant students' educational achievement, found that 70 percent of migrant students entering kindergarten had low English proficiency (which remained at 39 percent for migrant 12th graders); 49 percent of migrant students were overage for their grade level; and substantial numbers had poor attendance records.
The Migrant Education Program was instituted in 1965 as part of the Federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (Public Law 95-561, 20 U.S.C. ' 6391 et seq.) to serve the special educational needs of migrant students. Currently, the federal government provides more than $300 million to state-run programs to fund summer school, interstate coordination, high school equivalency programs, and other special services to help migrant children complete their education. Children are considered "migrants", and therefore eligible for these services, if they do not have a high school diploma and have traveled outside the school district to enable themselves or their parents to do agricultural labor or fishing within the past three years (34 C.F.R. ' 200.40[c]). Despite these special programs, school enrollment for migrant children is lower than that of any other population group, and their high school dropout rate is twice the national average. Only 10 percent of migrant children complete the 12th grade (CSCE, 1993).
Even young children may be in the fields because day care is unavailable. Migrant Head Start served 34,000 infants and young children in 1994, but lacks sufficient funding to serve all who need it. Private day care is too costly and inaccessible to be an option for most farmworkers. In one labor camp, a 4-year-old boy was found with a rope tied to his hand on one end and to a bed on the other. The rope enabled him to reach the bathroom and the food that was left for him, but kept him inside. That was the only day care available for him (CSCE, 1993).
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