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.
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.