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News > World

Child Labor Remains Common in US Despite Calls for Change

  • A child worker.

    A child worker. | Photo: Twitter/ @fairworldprj

Published 13 June 2022

Children aged 15-17 are four times more likely to die on a farm than in other workplaces, data from the U.S. Department of Labor revealed.

Children are the future of a nation and citizens of tomorrow. However, in the United States, a self-proclaimed "beacon of human rights," children are not truly protected, and child labor is common.


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Farming is one of the deadliest jobs in the United States, twice as deadly as law enforcement, five times firefighting and 73 times Wall Street investment banking, while children aged 15-17 are four times more likely to die on a farm than in other workplaces, data from the U.S. Department of Labor revealed.

Under the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act, children above age 12 can legally work unlimited hours on farms of any size with parental permission, as long as they do not miss school, and those above age 16 working in agriculture can do jobs experts deem particularly hazardous. There is no minimum age for children to work on small farms or family farms.

"Children as young as 12 are being hired to do backbreaking work on U.S. farms, at risk of serious injuries, heat stroke, pesticide poisoning, and even death," noted Margaret Wurth, a U.S.-based researcher.

Some argue that U.S. child labor in agriculture is legally protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Nonetheless, despite rapid technological and automation advancements, as well as mounting evidence of occupational hazards, the Act has remained essentially unchanged since its adoption in 1938.

According to official statistics, in 2019 alone, U.S. law enforcement officers found 858 cases of child labor in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and reports from some U.S. industry associations have found that there are about 500,000 child farmworkers in the country.

In 2012 alone, at least 1,800 U.S. children were injured during farming. Between 2003 and 2016, more than half of U.S. child deaths in the workplace occurred in agriculture-related accidents. Farm-workers make up less than a fifth of America's child workforce, yet they suffered more deaths between 2003 and 2013 than all other child workers combined.


The Labor Department did propose updated hazardous work lists on farms in 2011, which would have removed children from most tobacco work. However, this elicited an angry response from interest groups, who argued that the cost of labor would skyrocket in agricultural production and successfully convinced the department to withdraw the planned rule change.

Around 500,000 child farmworkers cannot push for reform on their own because they are not entitled to vote, the only tool the public has to influence the government's agenda, let alone form a constituency to which politicians can appeal in elections. The lack of commitment to end child labor is not confined to U.S. borders. Among all members of the International Labor Organization (ILO), the U.S. has ratified fewer conventions than most other countries.

One convention left unsigned by Washington is the Minimum Age Convention, which specifies that "the minimum age... shall not be less than the age of completion of compulsory schooling and, in any case, shall not be less than 15 years."

Furthermore, the U.S. is the only country in the world that has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Even many Americans have never heard of the convention and did not know that the U.S. stands alone in its unwillingness to ratify it.

That unwillingness is "an epic failure on the part of our country," said Rebecca London, an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, together with Catherine Ramstetter, founder of U.S. non-profit Successful Healthy Children, in their article published Saturday on the Hill.

They called for actions to "rectify" the failure, "if only we truly believed that children have rights: rights which deserve to be made explicit so as to be considered paramount in our institutions and policies."

Up to now, Washington has taken few significant actions. Not every child has a typical childhood; still, far too many children have their childhoods cut short. Yet few countries and governments would sit on their hands for decades.

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