Just how dangerous is farm work for children? A new report by Human Rights Watch is drawing attention to the fact that children as young as seven years old are working under hazardous conditions on tobacco farms. But the study is also bringing new scrutiny to America's labor laws, especially when it comes to the nation's youngest workers.
The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 includes protections for youths 14 to 17 years old who enter the workforce. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 14-year-olds can be employed in specific, non-agricultural occupations, outside of school hours.
The minimum age for unlimited hours of employment in non-hazardous, non-agricultural jobs is 16, while 18 is the minimum age for people to work in non-agricultural positions defined as hazardous under federal labor law.
But it's a different ball game when it comes to children and agricultural work. The FLSA lets children "of any age" work for their parents, or a person standing in for a parent, on a farm regardless of the job.
Exceptions also exist on a state-by-state basis. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, 17 states have exempted farm work from most or nearly all of their child labor laws, while a dozen other states set 14 as the minimum age for farm work outside of school hours. To complicate things further, there are exceptions to those exceptions. Hawaii lets 10-year-olds harvest coffee, while Washington State allows 12-year-olds to do field work when they're not in school.
Having children work on farms has long been a part of America's rural tradition and history. But farms are dangerous, with agricultural work listed among the top 10 most dangerous occupations. Teens are reportedly four times more likely to die working farm jobs as compared to any other workplace.
Regulations have been passed over the years to make farm work safer for kids. The National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, which receives funding from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, created guidelines in 1999 to help adults figure out what constitutes "age-appropriate" tasks for children working on farms and ranches.
But in 2012, following pressure from the agriculture sector and lawmakers in rural states, the Labor Department withdrew planned rules to limit what kinds of jobs child farm workers can perform.
Critics, meanwhile, say the U.S. needs to do more to protect child farm workers from health and safety hazards.
"The U.S. has failed America's families by not meaningfully protecting child farm workers from dangers to their health and safety," Margaret Wurth, a children's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the new tobacco industry report, said in a statement.
"The Obama administration should endorse regulations that make it clear that work on tobacco farms is hazardous for children, and Congress should enact laws to give child farm workers the same protections as all other working children."