Two Teens Lose Their Lives, Yet Law Remains the Same
Wendy Cervantes (Former Staff)Child Rights
While the focus in the nation’s capital remains focused on the national debt, around the country thousands of children are currently working to pick the fruit and vegetables that will end up in our supermarkets and on our dinner tables. Some of these are young teens who have taken on summer jobs, and others are children from migrant families who are working full-time from dawn to dusk to help support their families.
Jade Garza and Hannah Kendall, both fourteen years old, were two best friends detasseling corn in Tampico, Illinois to earn a little money over their summer vacation. This past Monday, both girls were tragically killed as a result of electrocution from a center pivot irrigation system. While the incident was deemed an unfortunate accident given that all employees are trained in safety precautions, it certainly begs the question whether children should be exposed to such dangers in the first place. In addition to Jade and Hannah, several others were injured in the accident, including a thirteen-year-old in critical condition.
According to the Centers for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, agriculture is the most dangerous industry for young workers. Children who work in the fields are frequently exposed to hazardous tools and machinery, dangerous pesticides, and extreme temperatures and working conditions. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, the risk of fatal injuries for agricultural workers ages 15 to 17 is four times greater than that of youth working in other sectors. Yet, under current U.S. law children working in agriculture are permitted to perform tasks that are prohibited for children working in any other sector, such as operating heavy machinery under the age of 18. Furthermore, children as young as twelve are permitted to work in the fields for unlimited hours, even on school days. In some cases, children as young as six and seven are already working part-time.
How is this possible?
It turns out that the Fair Labor Standards Act contains an exemption for youth working in the agricultural sector. Thus, child farmworkers are allowed to work for longer hours, at younger ages, and under more hazardous conditions than children working in an air-conditioned office or movie theatre. The reason for this difference is that when the law was written in 1938, many children were still working regularly on their own family’s farm. However, the agriculture industry has changed dramatically since 1938 with an increase in large commercial farms, pesticide use, and the introduction of new, often dangerous, machinery. It now makes no sense for this loophole in child labor to exist, as child farmworkers need the same standards and protections as every other working child. Their education, health, and quite frankly, their lives are at stake.
Just last month on June 9th, Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) was joined by activist and actress Eva Longoria to introduce the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE Act), a bill that would correct this fatal discrepancy in U.S. labor law and ensure that child farmworkers are provided with equal safeguards. The bill would also preserve the family farm exemption, allowing children to continue to work on their own family farms. That same day, Longoria hosted a screening The Harvest, a documentary film that captures the story of three migrant children and their families. One of the 12-year-old girls in the film, Zulema, hesitates for a long moment when asked what her dreams are and finally shrugs her shoulders and replies that she “doesn’t have any dreams yet.” Her response, while disheartening, is not surprising given that child farmworkers drop out of school at four times the national rate. The long hours and frequent relocation of migrant child farmworkers often makes it difficult for them to keep up with their peers in school.
Given that the U.S. is an international leader in combating child labor around the globe, it is ironic that our own federal child labor laws are so grossly inadequate. The tragedy this past Monday should serve as a reminder of the urgent need for Congress to take action to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act before any more young lives are lost. Had this loophole been corrected a long time ago, Jade and Hannah may very well still be with us today.
Please see the following resources for more information:
Chicago Tribune article: OSHA investigating farm accident that killed two teen girls
Fact sheet on the CARE Act
Human Rights Watch’s Report Fields of Peril: Child Labor in U.S. Agriculture