05/10/2010 02:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Kids at Work

Twelve-year-old Mark works in the cotton fields of Central Arizona to earn money for his family. Summers he works 50-70 hours per week, rising as early as 3 a.m. He's tired all the time, has trouble finishing his homework, and misses a lot of class. He eventually drops out of school, becoming part of a grim statistic -- child laborers in the U.S. agriculture industry drop out of school at four times the national rate.

Child labor is protected from exploitation under The Fair Labor Standards Act, but farm work is excluded -- a regulatory remnant of a time when picking blueberries and milking cows was considered a social good. Since its inception in 1938, the law, which also regulates minimum wage and overtime pay requirements, has been amended seventeen times. But child labor, which may seem like an easy appeal, has never made the cut. There are now hundreds of thousands of children working on U.S. farms.

A new push is under way to close this loophole. A bill introduced in the House in September 2009 calls for increasing the working age in agriculture from 12 to 16 and limiting the hours a child can work, while also preventing anyone under 18 from operating heavy machinery. Working in tandem, Human Rights Watch, which first brought national attention to the issue in 2000, is ratcheting up its lobby effort. The group released a new report called "Fields of Peril: Child Labor in U.S. Agriculture" on May 5, which was praised by Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, and says the issue is gaining new traction on Capitol Hill. The current bill has triple the support of a similar, unsuccessful bill introduced to a Republican Congress in 2001.

Congress ought to push the bill through. While children can certainly learn virtues working outdoors, the family farm, for all practical purposes, no longer exists. Today's "factory farmers" rely more on technology and economies of scale than on up-at-dawn virtues. The profession has also become more dangerous; in fact, the National Safety Council ranks agriculture as the nation's most dangerous industry. Throw children into the mix--some 307,000 were hired to work on farms in 2006, according to the Department of Agriculture, and that number is much higher once children employed by contractors are counted--and the picture takes a moral hue. Human Rights Watch found that child farm workers suffer fatalities four times as often as other working youth. This is all the more appalling given that the U.S. spends about $25 million a year, more than any other country, to eliminate child labor abroad.

Yet it remains uncertain whether the bill will pass. The post-healthcare, pre-financial regulation environment in Washington remains tense. The powerful U.S. agricultural lobby strongly opposes this legislation, as do many Republicans. The industry's concerns seem to be more about PR than economics (there are plenty of low-pay workers willing to pick up slack in labor markets if children are taken out of the market). Nor would the bill be a cure-all. Enforcement would prove difficult, as employees on farms are commonly migrant workers. But steps in the right direction are more than welcome, particularly when so basic an American value of protecting children is at stake.

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