The United States, which spends $25 million annually to eliminate child labor abroad, is failing to protect hundreds of thousands of American children from the risks and dangers of farm work, according to a new report released by a leading international human rights group on Wednesday.
Human Rights Watch researchers found that a loophole in the nation's child labor laws creates a double standard that puts child farmworkers' health and safety at risk and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation.
"Children can toil in the fields at far younger ages, for far longer hours, and under far more hazardous conditions than all other working children," concludes the report.
An ABC News investigation in 2009 found children as young as 5 and 7 years old working in the fields of one of the nation's largest blueberry growers, a regular supplier to major national supermarket chains.
An exemption to federal child labor law allows children as young as 12 and 13 to work for unlimited hours on large agricultural operations. Much younger children are allowed to work on farms employing less than 50 workers, which are exempt from minimum age requirements. The law has been unchanged since the Depression.
As permissive as the law is, it has not been well enforced, said Zama Coursen-Neff, deputy director for Human Rights Watch's Children's Rights Division, in an interview with ABC News last October. "Even the few restrictions that there are have been grossly violated," she said. "Kids working on farms at very young ages, kids working without parental permission."
Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed 59 children in Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas who reported working in a total of 14 states. While most of the children said they started working full time at ages 11 and 12, researchers interviewed a number of children who said they started working part-time at much younger ages, include a seven-year who picked blueberries in Michigan.
Other young teens interviewed by researchers said they had picked strawberries in Florida and blueberries in Michigan at age seven and picked shucked peas in Virginia at age eight.
The children told Human Rights researchers that no one asked for their proof of age. "Age doesn't matter," said one 13 year old girl quoted in the report. She told researchers that she had being hoeing cotton in Texas since the age of seven.
Poverty Drives Children to the Fields to Work
Child farmworkers told Human Rights Watch that they "felt pressure to work as fast as possible, with few breaks, and keep working even when injured or when sickened by pesticides, heat, tobacco, colds, flu, or other illnesses."
"We can't get sick because then we can't work," one 15 year old is quoted saying. The system of paying farm workers at piece rate – by how much they pick rather than by the hours worked, contributes to the problem.
"It's a matter of economic necessity for the parents," said Michigan migrant legal aid attorney Teresa Hendricks in an interview with ABC News last summer. "They just need every pair of hands in the fields in order to get by. Sometimes it's a difference between a financial crisis or being able to buy school supplies or being able to get enough gas to get home."
In 2009, four graduate students working with ABC News as Carnegie Fellows spent weeks in fruit and vegetable fields in Michigan, New Jersey and North Carolina interviewing workers.
Ana and Veronica Rodriguez of Lawrence, Michigan told ABC News that they were forced to work at ages 11 and 12 to help their mother make ends meet after their father abandoned them.
Like many migrant farm worker families, the Rodriguezes would pick oranges in Florida during the winter, and move to Michigan in summer, before the end of the school year, to pick asparagus, blueberries, and cucumbers – their least favorite crop to pick.
With the cucumbers, it was hard because you had to bend over all day and when you stood up, your back ached, and sometimes the chemicals were awful," said Ana Rodriguez, who was 17 at the time of the interview and no longer working in the fields. "There was a time when they sprayed them, and they were going to spray them again and we had to hurry up. And we could already smell it…I felt like I was going to faint and vomit."
After ABC News uncovered children as young as five working at the Adkin Blue Ribbon Packing Company in Michigan in 2009, Walmart decided to sever ties with Adkin. Walmart then conducted a third party investigation, and Adkins told Walmart it had put in place a plan to improve its child labor practices. Walmart says it will reinstate Adkin as a supplier as long as it abides by the plan, but has not yet made any purchases from Adkins.
In addition to routine exposure to harsh chemicals, Human Rights Watch found that farm work posed safety risks with children wielding sharp tools, climbing tall ladders, and lugging heavy and sacks.
Farmwork can lead to fatalities. Children working in agriculture suffer fatalities at "more than four times the rate of children working in other jobs," according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Between 2000 and 2008, 43 farm workers under the age of 18 died on the job.
Human Rights Watch researchers observed children working without even the most basic protective gear, sometimes without shoes or gloves. The children told researchers that their employers often did not provide drinking water or hand-washing facilities.
Human Rights Watch criticized the Department of Labor's enforcement of child labor laws as "extremely weak."
Last year, the Wage and Hour division found 109 minors employed in violation of child labor laws in 36 investigations, some 3 percent of the total children illegally employed found by DOL investigators. While no one knows exactly how many children are illegally employed each year, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of children under the age 18 work in agriculture.
"The Wage and Hour suffers from too few investigators, too little attention devoted to child labor, and of those resources devoted to child labor, too little focus on agriculture. As a result, growers have no reason to fear using children illegally," the report concludes.
The Department of Labor says that over the last year it has increased its investigative staff by a third, hiring 250 investigators in the last year with plans to bring on an additional 100 investigators this year (100 of those new investigators hired in the last year are specifically designated to enforce labor laws on stimulus projects).
In a statement released Wednesday, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said that the Obama administration would continue stepping up its enforcement efforts for all farm workers, including the youngest.
"With the goal of ending the illegal child labor as a top priority, our investigators are using every tool available, from imposing civil money penalties to using "hot goods" provisions to end these violations," said Solis in a statement. "As far as this administration is concerned, a single child labor violation is one too many. We will not tolerate it.
Solis also sent letters to the Chairman of House and Senate committees with oversight over labor law expressing her interest in working with Congress to improve protections for child farm workers.
"Building a stronger legal regime to protect US child farm workers requires a multifaceted strategy," wrote Solis. "Tight regulation and better law enforcement are critical, but more robust legislation is important as well."
California congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard has introduced a bill that would raise the minimum age to work in agriculture to 14 and increase penalties for child labor violations. The bill currently has 87 cosponsors in the House of Representatives.