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A 12-year-old might’ve grown your food. In many states, that’s perfectly legal.

Republicans are rolling back child labor laws. But they’ve always been weak on farms.

Farm workers harvest curly mustard in a field in February 2021 in Ventura County, California.
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images
Kenny Torrella is a staff writer for Vox’s Future Perfect section, with a focus on animal welfare and the future of meat.

While many middle schoolers spend their summers at the pool, biking around the neighborhood, or playing video games, Jacqueline Aguilar spent most of hers toiling in the lettuce fields of south central Colorado.

“My parents didn’t have enough money to buy new school clothes, and so that’s when I knew I had to go and work in the fields,” she said. Starting at age 11, from 5 am to 2 pm — six, and sometimes seven days a week, at $10 an hour — Aguilar would walk up and down rows of lettuce, weeding and adjusting lettuce heads to make sure they’d grow correctly.

“Physically, it was super draining,” Aguilar said. “My feet were constantly hurting … I remember just having so many blisters on my hands from the hoe.” She wrapped bandanas around her neck and wore long sleeves to prevent sunburn. “I would get dehydrated super fast and for lunchtime, we wouldn’t really get a meal. So it was like we weren’t eating, we weren’t drinking — they didn’t have clean water for us.”

Aguilar’s first summer of employment was technically illegal — though hardly unusual in agriculture — but once she turned 12, it was perfectly legal for her to work long, grueling hours under a scorching sun, even though her peers would have to wait until they were 14 to work in nearly any non-agricultural job.

In many states, including Colorado, children as young as 12 can harvest tobacco, milk 1,500-pound cows, or work in fruit and vegetable production like Aguilar, but they can’t tear movie tickets or bag groceries. It’s because the agriculture sector plays by a different set of employment rules than most of the rest of the economy.

“A 12-year-old can’t work in this air-conditioned office I have here, making copies, but we’ll let that same kid go into the field in 100 degree heat and do back-breaking work,” said Reid Maki, director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League and the Child Labor Coalition. (Aguilar, who is now 20, is interning with Maki at the Child Labor Coalition this summer.)

On top of an age gap, there’s also a time gap. Under federal law, 12-year-olds can work on farms for an unlimited number of hours so long as they don’t miss school and have the permission of their parents, while there are federal limits on the number of hours 14- and 15-year-olds in every other industry can work.

There’s a risk gap, too. Kids can perform agricultural tasks designated as “hazardous” by the US Department of Labor (DOL), like operating heavy machinery, at age 16, while similarly hazardous work in other fields is restricted until age 18.

Even kids under 12 can work on farms if the farm’s staff size is small enough, or if the DOL grants the farm a special waiver. Kids at any age can work on their parent’s farm.

Maki said the carveouts are especially troubling when you consider that agriculture is one of the more dangerous sectors in America, and the deadliest occupation class for minors.

On Monday, Rep. Raul Ruiz, a Democrat from California, where about half of America’s produce is grown, introduced the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety, or the CARE Act. The bill aims to close the age, time, and risk gaps for children working on farms, and increases penalties for child labor violations.

“We’re just bringing parity to child labor protections [in agriculture] that other industries have,” Ruiz said.

A farm worker picks grapes in October 2021, in the Kern County town of Lamont, California, where record heat fueled drought and wildfires.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Setting limits on child labor is a particularly salient — and charged — issue, as Republicans in statehouses across the country have recently pushed to weaken broader child labor laws amid continued worker shortages. Some bills increase the number of hours children under 16 can work, others lower the age limit for children to serve alcohol at bars and restaurants, while an Iowa bill would allow kids as young as 14 to work in meat coolers.

The bill also comes months after news reports of migrant children illegally employed to clean slaughterhouses and pack Cheerios in factories. According to the DOL, there’s been a 69 percent increase since 2018 in children who are discovered to be illegally employed, totaling more than 3,800 children across 835 companies.

The CARE Act would do a lot to protect kids working on farms, but it’s arguable it doesn’t quite go far enough. Given the increased risk of death and injury that farm work entails — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls it one of the most hazardous industries — it follows that there should be more protections for youth employed in agriculture than, say, those working pretzel stands. But farm lobbyists wield a lot of influence in Washington — enough to kill past attempts to change agricultural rules for minors, and most likely this one too.

Why kids can work on farms (and why they probably shouldn’t)

In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a major piece of legislation enacting the federal minimum wage (just 25 cents an hour at the time), overtime pay requirements, maximum workweeks, as well as restrictions on child labor (including minimum age requirements and restrictions on hazardous work). But agricultural work was exempt from some key parts of the law: In addition to the looser rules around employing children, agricultural workers were exempt from federal overtime and minimum wage provisions. (Most are now covered by federal minimum wage law, but not overtime).

It adds up to what Alexis Guild of Farmworker Justice calls “agricultural exceptionalism.”

“To obtain sufficient support for these reforms, President Roosevelt and his allies had to compromise with Southern congressmen,” Guild wrote in a 2019 paper with her former colleague Iris Figueroa. “These compromises included exclusions of farmworkers and domestic workers from the law’s protections, preserving the plantation system in the South — a system that rested on the subjugation of racial minorities.”

“A lot of the child laborers at the time were children of color — they were Black kids,” Maki, of the National Consumers League, said. “Today they’re brown kids.”

There isn’t solid data on the number of minors employed on farms, but a CDC survey from 2014 estimated the number at around 148,000 kids, with a little more than half working in crop production and the rest working with livestock. (Advocacy groups have estimated the number as much as two or three times larger.) Maki said he thinks that official estimates of vulnerable and exploited groups are usually too low. (The CARE Act creates reporting requirements on work-related injuries for children employed in agriculture; currently the government doesn’t consistently keep track of the number of children employed in agriculture under 16, nor of injury rates for this age group.)

Ruiz, who grew up in the farm worker community of Coachella, California — both of his parents were farm workers — said he saw a lot of his peers drop out of school to work on farms to earn income for their families. Growing up he heard stories of workers hiding from inspectors and women and young girls sexually harassed.

“That’s why it’s so important that we bring parity in the protections for children in order to stop the cycle of poverty, to increase their probability of finishing school, and also to provide protections to prohibit exposure to pesticides, harassment, and abuse in the fields as children,” Ruiz said.

A group of people walk with signs about unfair labor practices.
In May 2022, farm workers march to a Hannaford supermarket in Burlington, Vermont, to protest the supermarket chain’s refusal to purchase milk from dairy suppliers who have committed to a set of fair labor practices.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Aguilar’s experience is similar. She said a lot of kids migrate from Mexico to her small town in Colorado (both of her parents migrated from Mexico), and they can’t speak English so it’s hard for them to stay focused in school. Many turn to agriculture and drop out because their parents, many of whom also work in agriculture, don’t make enough income to support their families.

“They’re losing their opportunities as a minority to go to college and be a change,” she said. “They keep with the generations of working in agriculture, not breaking [the cycle]. Having farmers be so okay with them working so young is an issue. They should be promoting children to go to school and not to a field with their parents.”

Hand-harvesting fruits and vegetables in the field for hours — including picking fruits and nuts from trees on ladders as high as 20 feet — exposes kids to pesticides and risks musculoskeletal injuries. Exposure to pesticides and prolonged outdoor work in the sun increases farm workers’ cancer risk, and chronic pain is prevalent among farm workers due to extended periods stooping to harvest crops.

Aguilar’s father — a longtime farm worker — died of cancer, and she suspects his work in agriculture played a role. Her mom is disabled: “Her tendons from her shoulders are torn, and I think it’s from the movement of sorting the potatoes, of bending down with the hoe, and boxing and carrying heavy stuff.”

In 2014, it was estimated that nearly 12,000 workers under 20 were injured in agriculture-related incidents, but the true number could be much higher. Aguilar said a lot of kids don’t report injuries, either out of pride, fear of deportation if they or their family is undocumented, or lack of health insurance or money for medical care.

A 14-year-old worker feeds sows on a hog farm in Nebraska.
AP/Nati Harnik

Children are most likely to get injured — or die — in accidents with tractors and other vehicles, or while working with machinery or animals.

In 2016, young workers were 7.8 times more likely to die on the job in agriculture when compared to all other industries combined. According to the US Government Accountability Office, more than half of the 452 children aged 17 and under who died on the job from 2003 to 2016 were employed in agriculture, even though they make up a tiny fraction of that working age group.

Danger on the family farm

The CARE Act, as with similar legislative attempts in the past, doesn’t apply to kids who work on their parent’s farms as a way for farming families to pass down traditions to the next generation. That exemption appears common sense — and current federal law allows kids at any age to work on their parent’s farm — but the data tells a more complicated story.

Of the nearly 12,000 agriculture-related injuries suffered by workers under 20, more than half worked on their parent’s farm, and 60 percent of them occurred when they weren’t even working. This doesn’t mean a kid working on their parent’s farm is necessarily more dangerous than kids working on a stranger’s farm, there are just way more of them: Around 375,000 kids worked on their parent’s farm in 2014 compared to the 148,000 hired to work on other people’s farms.

But the fact that so many agriculture-related injuries among children happen when kids aren’t working suggests farms — with large tractors, ATVs, machinery, tools, and large animals around — aren’t the safest environment for kids, whether they’re working or not. There’s also little government safety oversight on small farms.

In 1976, Congress barred the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) from conducting regulatory activities — including checking for hazards and investigating deaths — on farms with 10 or fewer nonfamily workers. As of 2012, such farms accounted for over 90 percent of farms, employing 1.2 million workers. From 2011 to 2016, over 300 workers on small farms died in accidents that OSHA couldn’t investigate (in some states, the Atlantic noted in 2018, state inspectors could have filled the gap).

In 2018, Jordan Barab, former deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA during the Obama administration, told the Atlantic that the exemption is Congress saying it “doesn’t really care whether workers get killed on small farms or not.”

“There’s no other way to interpret it,” Barab added.

The future of farm work protections

The CARE Act will likely face stiff opposition from farm groups. When reached for comment on the bill, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the International Fresh Produce Association, the American Fruit and Vegetable Processors and Growers Coalition, the Washington Growers League, and two of the largest produce companies in California — Grimmway and D’Arrigo, as well as international produce company Dole — did not respond.

In 2011, the American Farm Bureau Federation and other farm groups came out against proposed DOL rules that would’ve prevented children under 16 employed in agriculture from working with animals, handling pesticides, working in tobacco fields, and other risky tasks.

Farm workers make their way across a tobacco field shrouded in fog in Kentucky, in 2008.
AP/Ed Reinke

Given the CARE Act’s slim chance of passage, states could step up to close the minimum age requirements for farm work and hazardous farm tasks, especially leading agricultural states, many of which still allow 12-year-olds to work.

Rightly, there’s no shortage of outrage over Republican efforts to roll child labor laws back to the 20th century. But federal rules for children in agriculture have always been stuck in a less enlightened past, with few top agricultural states raising standards to catch up with the rest of the economy. Aguilar said she wants to see that change.

“I think if they’re children, they should be children, and not an adult working an adult job that is super hard even on adults — can you imagine a child?” she said. “It’s something that needs to change. These children shouldn’t be going through that at this age. We shouldn’t be going through that at this age.”

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