Child Labor Is a Thing of the Past—Unless You Count Agriculture

Child Labor Is a Thing of the Past - Unless You Count Agriculture

( – The Fair Labor Standards Act was signed into law in 1938. In the 85 years since then, children have been protected by law from being abused by employers — except in one industry: agriculture.

On April 17, NPR published a shocking report about the abuses children face in the agricultural industry. Though child labor laws place strict restrictions on the use of children in workplaces, the regulations are much laxer in the fields. In fact, federal law allows children aged 12 and older are allowed to work an unlimited amount of hours in tobacco fields. The only catch is that they do so outside of school hours.

For children and adults, working in tobacco fields can be dangerous. The nicotine from the plants seeps into their skin, which can cause nicotine poisoning. In 2014, Human Rights Watch published a 138-page report entitled “Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in US Tobacco Farming.” It detailed the dangers the kids face while they are in the fields in Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, and Kentucky.

The report included comments from children who worked in the fields, often 50 or 60 hours per week. Elena G., then-13, worked in the fields in North Carolina. She said that she would barely eat during the day because she would feel nauseous. While she was working, she would feel as though she needed to faint, so she’d stop and hold herself “up with [a] tobacco plant.”

In the nearly 10 years since Human Rights Watch published the report, nothing has changed. Kids are still working on tobacco farms, risking serious injury or death. It’s not just tobacco, though; children are working in fields all across the country, being exposed to pesticides and heavy machinery.

Farm lobbying groups and Republican lawmakers have prevented stricter labor laws from being passed. Even former President Barack Obama backed down in 2012 after pushback from critics over a proposed Labor Department rule change. Unless Congress acts, these children will continue to be put at risk.

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