Migrant minor working in agricultural activities in the United States. | Photo: Twitter/ @AwdehRaghid
The U.S. Government Accountability Office suggested that 100,000 child farmworkers are injured on the job every year.
The probe into the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl found her working at a manufacturing plant in Alabama, a shocking incident that revealed the secret child labor in the United States, the only country unwilling to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
WAY TOO YOUNG
The 13-year-old daughter of Pedro Tzi, an immigrant from Guatemala, was found by the police in Georgia, where the teenager and a 21-year-old Guatemalan migrant were looking for a job.
Worse still, Tzi’s daughter and her two underage brothers did not go to school earlier this year, but worked at SMART Alabama in Luverne, an automotive parts manufacturer supplying products to South Korean multinational Hyundai Motor Company.
According to a Reuters investigation this summer, the factory employed as many as 50 children, with the youngest only 12 years old, in violation of U.S. federal law prohibiting anyone under the age of 18 from working in a stamping plant.
One former employee, named as Tabatha Moultry, worked on SMART’s assembly line for several years through 2019 and said that she remembered working with one migrant girl who “looked 11 or 12 years old.” The girl would come to work with her mother, Moultry said, adding that “she was way too young to be working in that plant, or any plant.”
In August, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) found child labor at another factory — SL Alabama, a Hyundai supplier in Alexander City, Alabama. In response, the DOL filed a complaint accusing the supplier of repeatedly violating labor regulations by “employing oppressive child labor” in hiring minors aged 13-15 to carry out hazardous work.
“In the U.S. system, oftentimes the monetary risk for labor rights violations is relatively small so it might be seen as a cost of doing business,” Dieter Waizenegger, executive director of SOC Investment Group, said.
“Exploitation of children is shameful,” President of the United Autoworkers Ray Curry said in a statement.
Forms of child labor, including indentured servitude and child slavery, have existed throughout American history, and the number of child laborers across the country peaked in the early decades of the 20th century, according to The University of Iowa Labor Center.
Though the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938, it didn’t ban child labor in the U.S. where the issue remains startling today. Under U.S. labor law, children as young as 12 can work unlimited hours on farms of any size with parental permission, as long as they do not miss school. There is no minimum age for children to work on small farms or family farms.
“This is glaringly out of step with international standards,” Margaret Wurth, a senior researcher with the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, wrote in an article published last year. “The U.S. should examine child labor within its own borders with the same scrutiny.”
Estimates by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity programs, based on figures gathered by the DOL, suggested that there are approximately 500,000 child farmworkers in the United States. Many of these children start working as young as age 8, and 72-hour work weeks — more than 10 hours per day — are not uncommon.
Agricultural work is demanding and dangerous. Children are regularly exposed to pesticides, greatly increasing their risk for cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that children are three times more susceptible to the pesticides’ carcinogenic effects than adults.
Environmental conditions, particularly extreme heat, and dangerous farming tools are even more immediate threats. A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office suggested that 100,000 child farmworkers are injured on the job every year and that children account for 20 percent of farming fatalities.
The United States is the only country in the world that has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a comprehensive human rights treaty on children’s rights and notably the most widely ratified treaty since its introduction in 1989.
Rebecca London, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Catherine Ramstetter, founder of Successful Healthy Children, co-authored an opinion published by The Hill in June, saying that “probably many readers have never heard of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and did not know that the U.S. stands alone in its unwillingness to ratify it.”
“We have failed U.S. children and youth in so many ways on this human right,” they said. “It is an epic failure on the part of our country and one that could be rectified, if only we truly believed that children have rights: rights which deserve to be made explicit so as to be considered paramount in our institutions and policies.”
Michael Hancock, an attorney with Cohen Milstein, a law firm, said that “child labor is one of those invisible problems” in the United States.
“It’s not something that’s really obvious to the public at large. But it’s a real issue for the victims of child labor. It deprives them of an education. It puts them in harm’s way. They’re young, they’re still developing, they’re not fully mature, so there are a lot of things about child labor that will set these kids back in their development, both physical, intellectual and otherwise, for years and years,” said Hancock, who worked at the DOL for 20 years.
“It’s something we can’t lose sight of and it’s a priority we have to maintain,” said Hancock.