Saturday, June 19, 2010

Obama administration steps up enforcement against child agricultural labor

Erik Eckholm reports in today's New York Times here. The dateline is White Lake, North Carolina, population 529, in Bladen County, population 32,278, a high poverty county (21% in the 2000 Census, though the 2006-2008 estimates show that rate has fallen to 13.2%) where blueberry farmers have long been reliant on migrant labor. Federal law prohibits children under 12 from working in the fields, and the Department of Labor last year began substantially increasing fines on farmers who use child labor. Recently fines as high as $11,000 per child--up from $1000--were announced.

As a consequence, some farms are now playing it safe by banning all those under 16 from the fields, but this has hurt women migrant workers who have no child care. One Migrant Head Start program in Bladen County is helping to respond to this need with a free program serving 138 children, yet the need still exceeds the supply. One migrant worker from neighboring Wayne County is quoted complaining about the stricter rules on children in the fields: “With the kids, the farms are very strict now. It was better before, because if you didn’t have someone to take care of the kids, you could take them along.” Some of these families also rely on the money their teenage children earn in the fields.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering changes to the 1938 law that exempts agriculture from the child-labor rules that apply to other types of employers. The law currently permits children aged 12 and up to work on an unlimited basis except during school hours. That would change if the so-called Care Act is passed. That law would ban 12- and 13-year-old workers and limit the working hours of 14- and 15-year-olds. It would also bar teenagers from doing hazardous jobs.

Ninety-one members of Congress support the Care Act, and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa is reportedly planning to introduce a similar bill in the Senate.

The largest farm lobbying organizations, the American Farm Bureau, opposes the bill, however, saying it "could imperil the tradition of children working in farm communities." Sure, rural youth have long provided labor for farms in their communities--usually for their own families. But that situation is far different from the abusive practices of agricultural enterprises taking advantage of migrant children. Invoking such a homegrown, all-American image seems disingenuous on the part of the Farm Bureau when it comes to potential protection of those with so much to gain from the Care Act.

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