A Government Accountability Office study finds that more than half of child worker deaths over a 13-year period in the U.S. occur in agriculture.
Of the 452 child-worker fatalities between 2003 and 2016, 237 occurred in agriculture, the report says. Of the farm fatalities, 143 were in crop production, and 67 were on livestock operations and aquaculture, including 56 in cattle operations. The remaining deaths that were classified as agriculture-related were in forestry, fishing or “support activities for agriculture and forestry.”
The study updates a 2002 GAO report and was requested in 2016 by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the ranking member of the House Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, and panel member Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif.
"The GAO report’s findings are damning," both Representatives said in a joint statement. "This report confirms that child labor is contributing to a devastating amount of fatalities in the United States – disproportionately so in the agricultural sector. In that industry, kids are often exposed to dangerous pesticides, heavy machinery, and extreme heat, and they are being killed as a result. That is unacceptable. Our government must take these findings as a call to action and build on them to collect more robust data on injuries and illnesses faced by children in America’s workforce."
The GAO study did find that child worker farm deaths seem to be declining. While the report doesn’t provide a year-to-year breakdown of child fatalities in agriculture, it did note that there were 53 fatalities among children 17 and under in 2003. That dropped to 14 in 2013 but increased to 30 fatalities in 2016, the most recent year of available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
DeLauro and Roybal-Allard wrote a letter to the GAO in 2016 urging the investigative arm of Congress to conduct a study assessing the risks associated with child labor in the United States, the data currently available to monitor these risks, and the oversight provided by the Department of Labor to protect the welfare of children in the workforce.
“America’s labor laws let children work in agriculture with fewer restrictions and at younger ages than workers in any other industry. While several hundred thousand children work in U.S. agriculture every year, we do not have enough data about them and their needs, especially those facing the hazards of tobacco farm work,” Roybal-Allard said in 2016.
GAO recommended, among other things, that DOL should evaluate the feasibility of measuring injuries and illnesses to certain worker populations, and establish metrics for child labor-related outreach in agriculture. DOL generally agreed with the recommendations.
During the Obama administration, the DOL sought to pursue rulemaking governing child labor on farms, but ultimately backed off after farm country opposition and confusion over whether or not family farms would be exempted.
The number of children working in crop agriculture has been declining. An average of 43,000 children aged 17 and under worked on U.S. crop farms from 2005 through 2008, or about 3.1 percent of the total hired crop workers. From 2013 to 2016, the number had dropped to 34,000, about 2.1 percent of total crop farm employment. More than a third of hired crop workers began working in agriculture before they were 18 years old.
Construction and mining industries accounted for the second-largest number of child worker fatalities at 59, the GAO found.
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