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US fails to protect child workers: Human Rights Watch

The US is failing to protect hundreds of thousands of children engaged in often gruelling and dangerous farm work, Human Rights Watch has said.

world Updated: May 08, 2010 16:58 IST

The US is failing to protect hundreds of thousands of children engaged in often gruelling and dangerous farm work, Human Rights Watch has said.

Human Rights Watch called on Congress to amend a federal law that permits children under age 18 to work for hire in agriculture at far younger ages, for far longer hours, and in far more hazardous conditions than in any other industry.

In its 99-page report, "Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture," Human Rights Watch found that child farm workers risked their safety, health and education on commercial farms across the US.

For the report, Human Rights Watch interviewed 59 children under age 18 who had worked as farmworkers in 14 states in various regions of the US.

"The US is a developing country when it comes to child farmworkers," said Zama Coursen-Neff, author of the report and deputy director of the Children's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch.

"Children who pick America’s food should at least have the same protections as those who serve it."

Child farm workers as young as 12 years old often work for hire for 10 or more hours a day, five to seven days a week, Human Rights Watch found. Some start working part-time at age 6 or 7.

Children, like many adult farm workers, typically earn far less than minimum wage, and their pay is often further cut because employers underreport hours and force them to spend their own money on tools, gloves, and drinking water that their employers should provide by law.

Agriculture is the most dangerous work open to children in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Children risk pesticide poisoning, serious injury, and heat illness. They suffer fatalities at more than four times the rate of children working in other jobs.

Some work without even the most basic protective gear, including shoes or gloves.

Many told Human Rights Watch that their employers did not provide drinking water, hand-washing facilities, or toilets. Girls and women in these jobs are exceptionally vulnerable to sexual abuse.

"The current child labor law was drafted in the 1930s when many more children worked on family farms, but that era is long gone," Coursen-Neff said.

"It’s time the US updated its antiquated child labor laws to give children who work for hire in agriculture the same protections as all other working children."