That's exactly what I thought when I first heard about it. I mean I had never even visualised that American agriculture could employ children on the farm. All the reports/studies and the stories we had heard about American agriculture always talked about big machines, big business, sophisticated technologies, and of course monumental agricultural subsidies. Exploiting children as farm labour, some as young as 10 years of age, has never been talked about in the international media. At least, I had never read about it.
At the ongoing WTO negotiations, the US and Europe have often accused India of employing children in agriculture and industry, and some countries have used the social clause (a non-tariff barrier) to stop exports of carpets for instance from India. We have been often accused of turning a blind eye to the curse of child labour. As a nation, I agree, we need to hang our head in shame for not being able to send these children of a lesser god to schools, and instead force them into labour because of poverty. For any nation, whether it is a developed or a developing economy, those exploiting child labour cannot and should not be pardoned.
But I see no reason why America, the world's biggest economy, and which never gets tired of preaching us about the social cost of child labour, be using children in its own heavily mechanised farms. This ugly face of American agriculture had remained hidden from public glare all these years.
How many children are employed in American agriculture? Well, there are about 2 to 2.5 million farm worker families in the United States, most of them are migrating from one county to another, and carry their children along. A large number of these children have to work on the farms to enable these families to survive. An average migrant family in a medium wage category does not earn more than US $ 16,000 a year. The pressure on children to work therefore is great. No wonder, about 65 per cent of these children drop out from schools, and never return for formal education.
According to David Strauss, Executive Director of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, a lot of the children working on the farms suffer from pesticides poisoning and injuries from machines. They live under stress, perform all the dangerous jobs on the farm, and also aspire to go to school like other children. David Strauss was talking to Michael Olson on The Food Show radio programme on child farm labour (http://www.metrofarm.com/).
David said that around this time (this programme was broadcast last week) thousands of families are packing up and moving up north from south Texas. They will be working in the crop fields in summers and up to November, and their children too would be accompanying them. Child labour is particularly severe in Texas, California, Washington, Michigan, North Carolina, and the Midwest. "Agriculture is the most dangerous place for children," he says.
I can understand about the children of farmers working on the farm. This happens everywhere, including India. I wouldn't however approve of it. The reason being that these children need to be like other children, go to school and go for higher education before opting for farming, if need be. But the children of migratory workers cannot be placed in the same category. David says that some of these children are made to work till midnight after they come back from the school, and often work 70-80 hours a week. This is really treacherous.
The US is following an outdated 1938 labour law that does not prohibit children below the age of 14 to work on the farms. Interestingly, while children below 14 are not supposed to be employed in offices, educational institutions or industries, there is no such regulation for children in agriculture. The Association for Farmworker Opportunity Programs is fighting for regulating child labour in agriculture and is trying to create more awareness about this hidden and ugly underbelly of American agriculture.
Most of these migratory workers come from Mexico. Some come from Latin America, Africa and I know many Indian and Pakistani families who work on the farm. That should make it obvious for you to know why the US doesn't care about child labour in agriculture. So much for a country that believes in ethnic equality and does not believe in racial discrimination.
(Editor:-To read more on the issue, click: http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2000/06/19/abusive-child-labor-found-us-agriculture)
Devinder Sharma is an award-winning journalist, writer, and researcher globally recognised for his analysis on food, agriculture and trade policy. After completing M.Sc. in Plant Breeding and Genetics, he started his career as a journalist. A decade later, he quit active journalism to research on policy issues concerning hunger and food security, biodiversity, genetic engineering and IPRs. He writes and speaks extensively on these issues and has written more than 10,000 articles till date.