Child labor under scrutiny in US

The United States is a leading critic of abusive child labor practices in developing nations such as Pakistan and China. But within its own borders, legal loopholes and poor enforcement subject thousands of migrant children to harsh and hazardous working conditions.

That's the charge of a report released today by Human Rights Watch, an international nonprofit group with US offices in New York and Washington. The report details how children of poor migrant farmworkers as young as 12 and 13labor long hours in the fields with far less legal protection than suburban children working in restaurants.

"What's appalling is not only are these kids protected less than other kids, these are the kids who are working in more grueling dangerous conditions," says Lee Tucker, author of the report.

An estimated 300,000 to 800,000 children labor on US farms. Most of them are Latino. Many are illegal aliens.

While federal law does not allow most children 13 and under to work, and strictly limits working hours of 14- and 15-year-olds, the law sets no limits for young farmworkers. Many drop out of school. Almost half of child farmworkers never graduate from high school, Ms. Tucker says.

The report also found examples where children fainted or even died after exposure to agricultural chemicals. Federal health and safety standards are currently set with adults, not children, in mind.

But farm groups disagree. "We think there are adequate protections in place," says Scott Rawlins, senior environmental policy specialist at American Farm Bureau Federation in Park Ridge, Ill., and a former apple-grower. For example, 18 states representing the bulk of where migrant labor is used have set their own minimum-age requirements. And violations of other laws are rare, he says.

"The farmworker advocates say there's a lot of smoke, but we can't find the fire," he adds.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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