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American Agriculture's Child Labor Problem

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Earlier this year, a court in San Francisco heard a case addressing the use of child slave labor overseas. On the defendant's side, reps for major U.S.-controlled chocolate corporations. On the plaintiff's side, three former child slave laborers from the cocoa fields of the Ivory Coast. The question: Could the American corporations be punished for what happened to the workers?

This month, the court finally returned with an answer: Yes.

The story struck a nerve with a lot of people, and for good reason. The conditions that the plaintiffs had been forced to work in were horrific. Fourteen hour days with no pay, very little food, routinely beaten and whipped by overseers before being locked away in cramped quarters every night. The fact that U.S. companies were reaping the benefits of this slave labor was outrageous. But what's more disturbing is the fact that child labor exploitation isn't only occurring outside of America.

It happens here, too. And it's note entirely illegal.

In May, Human Rights Watch published a report focusing on the dangers to children who work in our country's tobacco fields:

She and the other children on the farm worked from 6 or 7 in the morning to 7 or 8 at night. "I got heat exhaustion -- vomiting, feel like my stomach was trying to come out of my body," she said. "They would bring me water and saltine crackers to settle my stomach until I got better and then back to work."

The children were also being poisoned by the nicotine itself, which they absorbed through their skin and ingested while working. The story was so troubling that a group of Democrats are trying to get child labor banned on tobacco farms. But even if they get this accomplished, child labor isn't only happening in tobacco fields. Really, it's everywhere in American agriculture.

According to Human Rights Watch, America has "hundreds of thousands" of children working in farms around the country. And it's not very safe work. Children are forced to use sharp tools, breath in harsh pesticides, and work with heavy and dangerous machines. This is why child farmworkers die at four times the rate of other working youth.

But child laborers working in America may not be entirely who you'd expect. Rather than the child workers being illegal immigrants who are skirting around laws, most of the child laborers working in agriculture are born in this country and working completely legally. See, while child labor laws in the country are strong in most areas, one of the blind spots is in the realm of agriculture.

This is due to a quirk in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the series of laws that introduced, among other things, the 40-hour work week. A large section of those laws ended the harsh conditions of child labor, but still made for exceptions in the field of agriculture:

Children can legally work on any farm at age 12, with their parents' permission, and it's not uncommon to see children as young as 7 and 8 in the fields. During peak harvest season, the children work up to 14-hour days, and earn far less than minimum wage. There is no minimum age for children working on a small farm with parental permission.

The U.S. Department of Labor still allows for children under 20 years old to be paid only $4.25 an hour for their first 90 days of working. (After that, or when the child reaches the age of 21, they're bumped up to the standard federal minimum wage.) The only thing that children need to be allowed to work is a signature from a parent.

Nearly nonexistent wages for physically-demanding work with no time limit? No, that's not technically slavery. (While they are losing limbs and unwittingly putting their health at risk, they're not being beaten or whipped.) But it's damn close.

Slavery is never going to disappear for one very simple reason: It's great for business. Not having to pay for labor -- and the sick days, 401k plans, insurance premiums, etc., that go along with it -- positively affects the outlook of any business plan. As long as businesses are in the interest of turning a profit, they will attempt to exploit workers. Slavery is the extreme end of this exploitation, but child laborers working in harsh conditions for little-to-no pay is not far removed.

What needs to happen, then, is for the laws to change. It's time to update them so children working in agriculture are provided the same protection as children working in other areas. The proposed ban on children working in tobacco fields is a good start. But there's a long way to go.

For more information, watch this compelling short doc from Human Rights Watch:

Fingers to the Bone: Child Farmworkers in the Unit

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