American lawmakers have introduced two new legislations to Congress aimed at helping tackle the enduring problem of child labour on US farms.
The intervention comes at a time the United States is grappling with a rise in the incidence of hazardous child labour, especially in the agriculture sector, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The twin bills, The Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety and the Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act was submitted to the US Congress on 12 June 2023, a day commemorated globally as World Day Against Child Labour.
Deadliest industry for child workers
Children’s rights campaigners are hopeful the new laws when passed would close gaps in the country’s labour law.
Agriculture is said to be the deadliest industry for child workers in the US, according to Human Rights Watch, an international rights advocacy organisation.
“Yet labour law allows children as young as 12 to work legally on farms of any size for unlimited hours, as long as they don’t miss school,” said Margaret Wurth, Senior Researcher at HRW Children’s Rights Division.
She added, “In all other sectors, 16 is the basic minimum work age and 14- and 15-year-olds can only work for limited hours in certain jobs.”
In addition, she said, child farmworkers can do work considered hazardous at age 16, while workers in any other sector have to be 18 to do hazardous work.
“I’ve interviewed many children involved in hazardous child labour on US farms over the last 10 years. They’ve shared heartbreaking stories of working long hours in terrifying conditions,” Wurth underscored.
According to Human Rights Watch, Latinx children and families disproportionately bear the burdens of America’s weak protection for working children.
The CARE Act
These are some of the pressing problems hoped to be eliminated with the introduction of The Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety, otherwise referred to as the CARE Act.
The push for this key legislation is led by Representatives Raul Ruiz of California and Raul Grijalva of Arizona.
The CARE Act, they say, would provide child farmworkers with the same workplace protections as all other working children.
It would set a minimum employment age at 14 and a minimum age for hazardous work at 18 – the same standards set for other industries in the US.
Children working on family farms are, however, exempt from the bill and could still begin working at any age.
Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act
Another bill, the Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act, led by Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, would ban children under 18 from hired work on tobacco farms.
Work with tobacco is especially dangerous to children because the leaves contain nicotine, which can be absorbed through the skin and cause acute nicotine poisoning.
Congressional efforts to strengthen federal labour law come as many states are attempting to roll back child labour protections with policy changes that could be disastrous for children’s health and safety.
Margaret Wurth explained that strengthening US labour law will not eliminate child labour overnight, but it is one essential part of the solution, along with paying farmworkers a living wage, protecting labour rights and unions, and establishing strong social protection programs to alleviate economic hardship.
She insisted, “Congress should enact both bills to bring the US closer to ending child labour and defending children’s rights.”