Child Labor: 1938 Law Keeps Kids in the Fields

An NBC investigation reveals that children as young as eight are harvesting the produce that Americans eat.

Megan is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

If you walked into an auto-body shop and you saw an eight-year-old toiling over the open engine of a vehicle, alarms would probably go off in your head: Isn't that child too young? Isn't that work too hard?

Child labor laws have largely prevented this from happening, but thanks to a 1938 law that is still on the books, one sector has gone untouched when it comes to underage workers: agriculture. A recent NBC investigation discovered children as young as eight years old working in fields across America to harvest fruit, vegetables, and nuts. 

Most kids are driven to the fields—where they work long hours in 100+-degree temps—because their families need the additional income. The Association of Farmworkers Opportunity Program estimates children field workers number anywhere from 400,000 to 500,000 kids.

Despite the grueling work kids endure—and the fact that it keeps many of them from attending school—child labor in agriculture is legal. Labor laws from the ’30s make an exception for child agricultural workers, stating that children 12 years old and younger, in certain circumstances, can legally work. The law also fails to limit the number of hours children are allowed to work, so many children exceed nine-hour days.

"Children can work at any age on a small farm with their parents' permission," Zama Coursen-Neff of Human Rights Watch told NBC. "It's absolutely legal for a small farmer to hire a six-year-old to pick blueberries."

Most of the children NBC interviewed worked on large farms, where some said they have been encouraged to lie about their ages in order to keep a low profile. Though the majority of child workers are U.S.-born and are not at risk of deportation, they can't afford the loss of income. 

In addition to the physical toll that field work takes on children, it has long-term fallout as well. Kids drop out of school to supplement family income and never reach graduation day. Without a diploma, job options are slim, and the cycle of poverty and tough manual labor continues.

According to NBC, the U.S. Department of Labor attempted to change the 1938 law recently to better protect children, but resistence from growers mounted quickly. Critics also said changing the law would hurt small family farms, a charge that department officials disputed.

Nonetheless, the Labor Department quickly retreated, and on July 24, the House passed a bill that prevents the Department of Labor from attempting similar changes regarding children in agriculture in the future.

The passing of the bill may effectively silence children and child advocates and ensure that Americans will continue to consume fruits and veggies that support the status quo. A similar proposal in the Senate awaits action.

"I think Americans are largely clueless about the labor in general that supplies their food," one grower told NBC. "And whether it's their age or their ethnicity or their legal status or any of the above, I think Americans are in the dark about what's going on."

How much do you know about your food supply? Do you know if you're supporting child labor?

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