Caution: Children at Work
The next time you buy fresh fruit or vegetables from the supermarket, think about the true costs. Rosa Rubina will. Her five-year-old son Jacob lost his hand while helping to grade and package watermelons in Tifton, Georgia. The boy's hand was caught in a conveyor belt and ripped off. "I saw his arm wasn't there and his hand was stuck in the conveyer belt. I went crazy," Rubina remembers.Even though the boy was rushed to a nearby hospital and eventually to Atlanta, doctors were unable to save his hand. Today, because of the injury, the child keeps to himself. "He doesn't go out," Rubina says. "Some days he asks me, 'Ma are you still gonna love me with one hand?'"Accidents like Jacob's are becoming all too common for children in the workplace. Thousands of young people are injured, some even killed, on the job each year in the United States. A report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that 64,000 children, ages fourteen through seventeen, were treated in hospitals for work-related injuries in 1992. Another report by the Institute found that from 1980 to 1989, 670 sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds died in work-related accidents.These statistics tell only part of the story. Thousands of children like Jacob Rubina are not counted in the data gathered by the Department of Labor and other agencies because they work in largely unreportable jobs or help out their parents on the farm where they aren't listed as workers. This problem is particularly acute for minority youth. "Though they are less likely to work than their white counterparts, minority children often work in more dangerous and unreportable jobs," says Charles Geszeck of the Government Accounting Office, the investigative wing of Congress.Nowhere are the dangers of children working more apparent than in agriculture. On any given day during the harvest season, children as young as five are in the field picking cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries, and other hand-harvested fruits. Growers say that they don't hire children, but in 1992, on a tour of ten farms in Ohio, the Associated Press found dozens of children working. Many of these farms were selling their crops to major agriculture corporations like Vlasic Foods, Heinz USA, and Dean Foods. According to the American Friends Service Committee and the United Farm Workers, between 800,000 and 1.5 million children work in agriculture.While agriculture is not the only industry that employs large numbers of children, it is certainly the most dangerous. In fact, agriculture is the second most dangerous occupation after mining, according to a 1995 report by the National Safety Council. Yet agriculture is less regulated than any other industry, particularly when it comes to children.Consider the following:* Hazardous work is prohibited in farming only until age sixteen (compared with age eighteen in nonagricultural occupations), and all work on family farms is exempt.* A section of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the law regulating child labor, allows agricultural industries to obtain waivers that will allow them to use ten- and eleven-year-olds for hand-harvested products if the companies can show that not using the ten- and eleven-year-olds "would cause severe economic disruption to the industry."* A child fourteen years of age or younger can use knives, machetes, operate machinery, and be exposed to pesticides. Children in other occupations cannot.* Children in agriculture can work more than forty hours a week, even during a school term, although children in other industries are prohibited from doing so. Young farmworkers can also work an unlimited number of hours before school."In no other industry could you get away with this," says Diane Mull of the Association of Farmworker Opportunities Program in Virginia. "For just about every labor standard in the book, agriculture is exempt."Parents like Rosa Rubina have little choice but to expose their children to a dangerous environment. Like most migrant families, the Rubinas and their children work side by side, or the children play in the fields while their parents work."I tried to get the children into day care but there was a long waiting list," says Rosa Rubina. She is not alone. According to the federal Migrant Head Start program, in 1990 only 23,000 out of millions of migrant children were provided day care.Children left in the field unsupervised can get into serious trouble, says Francisco Rivera, an attorney with the Florida Department of Labor. "I used to work for Florida Legal Services, and children are out in the field all the time. Three years ago a minor was run over in the field by a tractor. Another year two kids drowned. They were playing in some ditches on a Saturday while their parents worked.""I don't know what else to do," says Juan Hernandez, whose nine-year-old son helps him pick cucumbers in Fremont, Ohio. "If he wasn't doing this he'd be running around. We have to watch him."Lack of child care isn't the only reason that children work on the farm, of course. Poverty makes hard choices for many farmworkers. The average farmworker's annual wage is about $4,600. Since many farmworkers are paid by the number of fruits or vegetables they pick, "everyone in the family needs to work just to make a living," says Diane Mull. "It perpetuates a cycle of poverty. Kids work and don't go to school and they don't make much money, so they stay poor."Farm industry representatives disagree. "Housewives in Boston may not understand it, but there is nothing wrong with fourteen-year-olds getting their hands dirty and learning some discipline," says Scottie Butler, general counsel for the Florida Farm Bureau.But children who work in agricultural jobs face more serious problems than dirty hands. Farmworker children are often two or more years below grade level in reading and math skills, and their dropout rate is 45 percent, compared with 29 percent for non-farmworkers. In Florida, many children from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and Haiti drop out of school to work on farms for $4 or $5 an hour. Many have no illusions about their future."Once you start working in the groves, you never come out," says a fifteen-year-old farmworker who asked not to be named. "But if I don't pick I don't eat."Exposure to pesticides represents the greatest threat to the health of children in agriculture, says Valerie Wilks, formerly of the Farmworker Justice Fund in Washington, D.C. Children in agriculture are exposed to a range of chemicals each year. And children tend to be more susceptible to pesticides because they absorb more pesticides per pound of body weight and because of their developing nervous system and organs. Furthermore, children in the fields may eat contaminated dirt or pesticide-treated crops. Yet according to a lawsuit filed in 1979 by Public Citizen, a Ralph Nader group, the Department of Labor published regulations that permitted ten- and eleven-year-olds in potato and strawberry fields to be exposed to the residues of some twenty-five pesticides, including many that produce birth defects, impair growth, and damage the reproductive system.A report in 1990 of migrant children in New York found that more than 40 percent had been sprayed with pesticides. Another 40 percent had worked in the fields while the fields were still wet. Still, the EPA has not felt a need to set standards for child exposure to pesticides. Current regulations are established for adults. According to the GAO report, "the EPA regulations for protecting workers against pesticide hazards are based on adult exposure only and give no special consideration to children." Even so, the EPA's own data show that 300,000 pesticide-related illnesses occur among adults and children each year.In 1994 only 200 children nationwide were found working illegally, according to Bob Cuccia, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor. "Food processors know that they are being targeted, so they are being good," said Cuccia. But the National Child Labor Committee says more than 110,000 children work illegally on U.S. farms. "And even this may be an undercount," says Jeffrey Newman of the Committee.It may be impossible for the Department of Labor to know the exact number of children working on farms. A provision in the annual appropriations bill forbids the Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from inspecting farms that claim fewer than ten workers. This provision is supposed to keep small farms from being subjected to the same laws as giant agribusiness. But to exploit this provision, some growers allow an independent contractor to hire workers. This keeps the grower from having to comply with worker-safety or child-labor laws."So you could have fifty or sixty people, including children, working on a farm and only ten people on the employer's books," says Mull. Another tactic that growers use to circumvent the laws is to register an entire family as working under the social security number of the head of a household, says Mull. "This also gives the illusion that there are only a few workers being employed, when in reality there could be hundreds."There is little regulatory agencies can do to help. In addition to being barred from inspecting farms that claim fewer than ten workers, labor officials have to ask a grower's permission to inspect a farm. "This makes it more difficult to measure the problem of child labor in agriculture," says Jesus Martinez, a district director for the U.S. Labor Department.Despite urgings from regulatory officials and farm-labor organizations, Congress has been unwilling to change the laws to protect farmworkers and their kids. Politicians from farming states are loath to take on agribusiness, and agribusiness wants to keep it that way. Last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the agriculture industries gave millions to a conservative Congress bent on undoing reforms that date back to the New Deal era, including restrictions on child labor. The American Farm Bureau and a trade association made up of state agriculture commissioners have lobbied Congress not to strengthen laws and regulations governing farmworkers.Last year Congress took the first step in what many child advocates fear will be an all-out assault on child-labor laws. The House of Representatives passed a bill allowing youths under the age of eighteen to load paper compactors even though a report by the National Institute for Occupational Health Science found numerous injuries resulting from the operation of these balers. The Food Marketing Institute, the lead trade organization behind the baler repeal, gave $173,369 to legislators from 1991 to 1994, according to Federal Election Commission records. Other opponents of child-labor laws and regulations have joined an anti-regulation task force called Project Relief, which gave $10.5 million to legislators, mostly Republicans, during the 1994 elections.Due to budget cuts, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, charged with collecting data on young injured farmworkers, has decided to stop collecting data on injuries caused by farming equipment like tractors and pesticides in its reports on consumer products. "We can't spend our limited resources on things that we aren't sure are considered consumer products," says Art McDonald of the Commission.The absence of such data could have a crippling effect on efforts to prevent injury to young agricultural workers, advocates say. "The research isn't there because nobody cares," says Mull. "These are migrant children who are just a source of cheap labor. It's a national disgrace."Ron Nixon is the associate editor of Southern Exposure magazine and the director of the Investigative Action Fund at the Institute of Southern Studies. He won a 1995 "Best Censored" award for his reporting on child labor in Southern Exposure. This story was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.