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A new bill in Congress would tighten child labor rules in agriculture

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

With child labor in the news, here's something to think about. Under federal law, children as young as 12 can be hired to work on farms, but some House Democrats are trying to change that. NPR's Andrea Hsu has more.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: This year alone, stories have emerged of 13-year-olds cleaning saws in meatpacking plants, 10-year-olds working in the kitchen of a McDonald's. But this bill is not about them. It's about the estimated tens or even hundreds of thousands of children who are legally working in agriculture.

RAUL RUIZ: The fact that children are still put in harm's way working in the fields is a legacy of a bygone era that needs to be rectified.

HSU: That's Democratic Congressman Raul Ruiz of California, one of the sponsors of the bill known as the CARE Act.

RUIZ: The Children's Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety.

HSU: Under federal law, children have to be 14 to work just about anywhere, and their hours have limits. But there's a carve-out for agriculture that dates back decades. Children can be hired for farm work at age 12 for any number of hours as long as they don't miss school. And while children are generally prohibited from doing hazardous work, again, there's an exception for agriculture. At 16, children can operate heavy machinery and work at any height on farms. The CARE Act would do away with these carve-outs.

RUIZ: We're not asking for anything more or above. We're asking for parity.

HSU: Margaret Wurth of Human Rights Watch says current law creates absurd parallels where children of the same ages don't receive the same protections from dangerous work.

MARGARET WURTH: To operate a circular meat slicer at a deli, you'd have to be 18. But to use that same kind of circular saw on a farm, you could be 16.

HSU: Now, many versions of this bill have been introduced over the years, only to die in Congress. But now that child labor violations in factories and slaughterhouses have grabbed headlines, Margaret Wurth is hopeful this time will be different.

WURTH: I think it's just an issue of people not realizing that we still have these harmful carve-outs in law that allow this to legally be happening in our country.

HSU: Prior iterations of this bill met with fierce opposition from farms. At a hearing last fall, Kristi Boswell, who grew up on a farm and later served in President Trump's Agriculture Department, warned that traditions held by farming families would be threatened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISTI BOSWELL: My niece and nephews would not have been able to detassel corn at ages 12 and 13, despite their parents knowing they were mature enough to handle the job.

HSU: Actually, the bill has some exemptions for family farms, and Margaret Wurth says it's not about keeping the children of farm owners and their cousins, from working and learning the family business. It's about protecting those who are the most vulnerable.

WURTH: These are Latinx children and their families who are working in the fields because they're living in extreme poverty.

HSU: But here lies another complexity. Many families depend on the income their children bring in. Cutting off that source of income could be devastating. Wurth is under no illusions that the CARE act would end child labor overnight, but she says it would set a legal framework for tackling the issue.

WURTH: If a labor inspector goes to a farm today and finds a 12-year-old working a 14-hour shift in a tobacco field, there's no violation to report. There's really nothing that inspector can say.

HSU: Because that work is completely legal - something this bill seeks to change.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.
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