Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Harvesting Heartache

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Harvesting Heartache

Article excerpt

Agriculture is the sector of the economy that most frustrates child advocates concerned with workplace injury, and no occupation is more troubling than that of the migrant worker.

Since most farm workers are paid by the bushel, basket or bucket, children are brought into the fields to help gather the harvest and supplement the family income. Such decisions are also a matter of necessity as much as economy, since many parents have no place to leave their children while they work.

Migrant children work 12 to 14 hour days side-by-side with their parents. The majority of young farm workers report that they have been exposed to pesticides, either from being sprayed directly, or through working with recently sprayed plants. They use tools, drive tractors and trucks, and work around equipment forbidden to nonagricultural workers in the child labor laws. Estimates place the number of deaths of underage workers at 300 per year in agriculture, with over 20,000 reported injuries.

Child labor laws do not apply to most agricultural workplaces. Waivers obtained from the Department of Labor allow workers as young as 10 and 11 to be used as hand harvesters. Farmworker employment hours are not restricted like those of nonagricultural workers, and in some cases, children as young as 10 years old can legally work in the agriculture industry without the written consent of their parents.

"These farmers aren't forcing these kids into the fields; they're not slave drivers standing behind them cracking a whip. That's not what's happening here," said Diane Mull, executive director of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. Instead, she said, the blame belongs with "the system which has built up around agriculture."

Department of Labor Wage and Hour inspectors said they often catch heat for the number of minors injured on farms, although in most cases they have little or no enforcement power to do anything about the problem.

"It's like blaming the waitress because the food is burned," said Maureen Heinz, who is the child labor coordinator for the Chicago-area regional office of the Wage and Hour Division. "It's the cook's fault but the waitress is the person standing at the table."

The federal government historically has had a "hands-off" attitude about agricultural occupational issues. …

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