Child Labor on the Farm

I got an e-mail from Watchdog.net, I think they are affiliated with either moveon.org or demandprogress, I am not sure which. Anyway they are asking me to sign a petition to outlaw child labor on tobacco farms.

Dear David Hoffman,

US law prohibits selling cigarettes to children — but it has no problem poisoning them on its tobacco farms.

The world’s largest tobacco companies buy US-grown crop, 90 percent of which comes from North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.

In these four states along, thousands of children, some as young as seven are working long hours in extreme heat without shade, breaks or protective gear, choking on pesticides and exposed to acute nicotine poisoning that can lead to cancer, problems with learning and cognition, and reproductive health issues.

Child are by far the most vulnerable to these poisons, and the lack of child labor laws surrounding farming has gone on long enough.

We call on the Obama administration to endorse regulations to make it clear no child should work on a tobacco farm, and for Congress to enact laws to give underage farmworkers the same protections as all other working children.

PETITION TO PRESIDENT OBAMA AND CONGRESS: Endorse regulations to make it clear no child should work on a tobacco farm.

Click here to sign — it just takes a second.

Thanks,
— The folks at Watchdog.net

Actually, the situation is worse then they are describing. It is not just tobacco farms that employ child labor and exposure to nicotine is not the only thing they have to worry about. When you sit down to eat your Christmas dinner, there is a very good chance that the fruits and vegetables you will be eating were picked by the children of migrant farm workers who worked right alongside their parents in the fields. As the e-mail mentioned they are often exposed to levels of pesticide considered toxic to adult males. The work they do is often backbreaking and can be dangerous.

How does this happen in twenty-first century America? Well, as it happens child labor laws are a good deal less stringent for agricultural work than for any other industry. In most cases, children are not permitted to work until the age of 16 and there are restrictions on work conditions and number of hours worked until the age of 18. There are no such restrictions on agricultural workers. This is, I suppose, to keep farmers from being arrested if they make their children do chores. It also happens to create a huge loophole that  makes the employment of the whole family possible with the conditions described above.

Should I sign this petition? Should child labor on farms be outlawed? I think that any decent person’s first reaction would be to say yes. But first reactions may be wrong reactions. The problem may not be so easily resolved.

The parents of these children are not bad parents. They do not necessarily want their children to work in the fields and if they had any other option they probably wouldn’t have their children in the fields. They don’t often have other options.Migrant farm workers do not get paid very much. Often they are paid by piecework, or amount of crop picked, rather than hourly, so they could be paid less than minimum wage. The average yearly income for farm workers is around $11,000. This means that they cannot afford any sort of daycare for their children. During the school year, the children can go to school, although working on the fields after getting home from school doesn’t do much for their academic career, but what are they going to do in the summer? If the children were not allowed to work in the fields not only would there be the cost of hiring a babysitter, etc, but they would lose the income the children’s labor provides.

Of course if the farmers who employed these migrant workers would pay them more, then they would not be so badly off. The problem here, is that few farms are very profitable, really only the biggest. Small farms often have very little to spare for decent wages for the people who work in the fields.

You can see then how a measure meant to help people may end up making conditions worse for them. I really don’t know what the solution is. Children ought not to work in tobacco fields. The children of migrant workers ought to be able to grow up and do something better. At the very least, there ought to be some sort of regulation on what sort of work minors are permitted to do on a farm. Maybe I will sign the petition, for whatever good it might do.

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One Response to “Child Labor on the Farm”

  1. Unintended Consequences | David's Commonplace Book Says:

    […] does not magically solve the problem. Sometimes it may make the problem worse. I have written before how legislation can be ineffective or worse, even if well intentioned, if it is passed without a […]

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