Child labour in US: ‘dangerous double-standard’

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Child labour in US: ‘dangerous double-standard’

Published on : 6 May 2010 – 12:13pm | By Marijke Peters

Hundreds of thousands of children as young as seven are working in the US agricultural sector, a new study has found. The United States may be the biggest contributor to preventing child labour abroad, but the report shows Washington doesn’t practise what it preaches on its home turf.

Just days before the Dutch government hosts a conference on the subject, campaigners have told the White House to clean up its act.

Human Rights Watch says youngsters are regularly employed on farms, working ten-hour days in unsafe conditions. The US does have strict laws on child labour, but there are exemptions for under-18-year-olds who work in farming, according to the report’s author Zama Coursen-Neff:

“Because of a dangerous double-standard in US federal law, children in agriculture are working far longer hours, at far younger ages, and in far more hazardous conditions, than all other working children in the US.

“The reason that is happening is because there is a loophole in the child labour law in the United States that allows it. Basically the child labour law in the US is pretty good, except when it comes to agriculture, where it has a big gaping hole.”

Picking apples
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibits the employment of children under 14, limiting under-16s to three hours of work a day during term-time. But the law – drafted in the 1930s when farm work was common for children – doesn’t apply to the agricultural sector. Young people can work on farms if they’re over 12 and there is no limit to the number of hours they do a day.

The problem is especially big in the Hispanic community, which makes up 85 percent of crop workers in the US. Although the child labourers may have US citizenship, their parents are often working illegally or hold short-term visas, which makes them much less likely to report abuses to the relevant authorities.

“Children are primarily working in hand-harvest crops,” says Ms Coursen-Neff. “They’re picking apples, cherries, blueberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchinis…. They’re harvesting tobacco. They’re doing the work that puts fresh fruit and vegetables Americans enjoy right on our table.”

The US is the largest donor to the International Labour Organisation’s programme to combat child labour and the White House has traditionally been outspoken on the issue. But Human Rights Watch complains that enforcement of national laws on child labour has dropped over the past decade.

On May 10, a US delegation will attend an international conference on child labour in The Hague. Human Rights Watch is hoping the government will start taking concrete action: “We’re quite confident this research represents an accurate picture of what child labour is like in agriculture in the US today, and that picture is a shameful scandal compared to the standards that the US believes it adheres to,” says Ms Coursen-Neff.

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