ERIC Identifier: ED405159
Publication Date: 1997-02-00
Author: Davis, Shelley
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural
Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Child Labor in Agriculture. ERIC Digest.
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
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA),
which outlawed child labor in most industries in 1938, did not impose age limits
on agricultural labor until 1974. The FLSA, however, continues to provide less
protection for children who work in agriculture than for those who work in other
industries. Outside of agriculture, youth must be at least 16 years old before
they can be employed for unlimited time periods, and they must be at least 18
years old before they can work in hazardous occupations. Fourteen- and
15-year-olds can work only outside of school hours (FLSA, 29 U.S.C. ' 203[l]).
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
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).
A DEMOGRAPHIC PROFILE OF FARM LABORERS
are overwhelmingly people of color. Seventy percent or more are Hispanic and
others are African American, Asian, Haitian, West Indian, and Native American.
The median education level among farmworkers is eighth grade, and many speak
little or no English (Mines, Gabbard, & Samardick, 1993). Approximately 75
percent of all farmworkers are U.S. citizens or have lawful resident status
(U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, 1995).
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];
OCCUPATIONAL INJURIES AMONG CHILDREN
The health and
well-being of children and adolescents who work in agriculture are jeopardized
by the long hours of labor and dangerous working conditions (USGAO, 1992). Work
takes place before, during, and after school hours. An estimated 27,000
children, age 19 and under, who both live and work on farms suffer work-related
injuries, and an additional 300 die from work-related accidents (Wilk, 1993).
These figures understate the extent of the problem because they exclude
youngsters who work but do not live on farms.
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.
INJURIES FROM PESTICIDES
Pesticides are an ever-present
danger on the farm, with 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides used in U.S.
agriculture annually. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that
as many as 300,000 farmworkers suffer from pesticide-related illnesses or
injuries each year (USGAO, 1992). One New York study found that one third of the
children interviewed who had worked in agriculture the previous year had been
injured by pesticides in that time period (USGAO). As harvesters, children
encounter pesticide residues on crops. When children and adolescents eat, drink,
or smoke in the fields, they ingest pesticides. And all too often youngsters are
exposed to direct spray or drift while working in fields or at home in adjacent
migrant labor camps. These chemicals cause acute ailments such as skin rashes,
eye irritation, flu-like symptoms, and even death. They may also cause chronic
harms such as birth defects, sterility, neurological damage, liver and kidney
disease, and cancer (Wilk, 1993). Children are more likely to be harmed by
pesticide exposures than are adults because children have lower body weight,
higher metabolism, and immature immune and neurological systems (National
Research Council, 1993).
Economic pressures lead many farmworker
children to work when they should be in school (Stancill, 1993). Many enter
school at an older age and drop out before they can graduate from high school.
Work schedules of parents and children also interfere with education, as some
migrant children begin their school year in October or November and leave before
the semester is finished (CSCE, 1993). For children whose families return to
Mexico during the year, the disruption may be even more severe, because school
systems on both sides of the border generally have not recognized the progress
students make outside of their own systems. This may be changing, however, with
the Migrant Education Binational Program, which now involves 32 Mexican and at
least 10 U.S. states in information exchanges about individual students (Flores,
1996, pp. 10-11).
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
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
For nearly 60 years, most children in the
United States have been protected from the hazards of the workplace and from
economic forces that once compelled them to contribute to the family income.
However, to this day, migrant farmworkers' children are exposed to many
work-related conditions that threaten their health and their long-term prospects
for participating as educated Americans in the mainstream economy.
Commission on Security and Cooperation in
Europe. (1993). Migrant farmworkers in the United States. Implementation of the
Helsinki Accords. Briefings of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in
Europe (July 20, 1992; October 9, 1992; February 19, 1993; March 1, 1993; April
8, 1993). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. (ED 365 486)
Flores, J. L. (1996). Children of la Frontera: Binational efforts to serve
Mexican migrant and immigrant students. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Rural Education and Small Schools. (ED 393 631)
Gabbard, S., Mines, R., & Boccalandro, B. (1994). Migrant farmworkers:
Pursuing security in an unstable labor market. Washington, DC: U.S. Department
of Labor, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy.
Mines, R., Gabbard, S., & Samardick, R. (1993). U.S. farmworkers in the
post-IRCA period: Based on data from the National Agricultural Workers Survey
(NAWS). U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Program Economics, Research Report
No. 4. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
National Research Council. Committee on Pesticides in the Diets of Infants
and Children. (1993). Pesticides in the diets of infants and children.
Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Stancill, N. (1993, April 11). Children of the fields. Houston Chronicle.
True, L. (with Aumann, M.). (1991). Hunger in the heartland. Fresno:
California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.
U. S. Commission on Agricultural Workers. (1992). Report of the Commission on
Agricultural Workers. Washington, DC: Author.
U. S. Commission on Immigration Reform. (1995). Legal immigration: Setting
priorities. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
U. S. Department of Labor. (1996). State Workers Compensation Laws.
Washington, DC: Author, Employment Standards Administration, Office of Workers'
U. S. General Accounting Office. (1992). Hired farmworker: Health and
well-being at risk: Report to congressional requesters. (HRD-20-46). Washington,
Wilk, V. (1993). Health hazards to children in agriculture. American Journal
of Industrial Medicine, 24, 283-290.