These days there is a lot of great advice on how to keep our children safe and healthy. Don’t let them sit too close to the TV. Feed them pesticide-free fruits and vegetables. No cell phones, no fast food, no riding bikes without helmets. We have a law that protects children from being bullied by their peers at school and, recently, there was even a recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics that children continue to sit in booster seats while riding in automobiles until they enter middle school.
Yet, amazingly, the North Carolina child labor laws continue to allow children as young as 12 years-old to work an unlimited amount of hours, outside of school, in agriculture.
There’s a special irony in this exception to our usual cautionary approach when it comes to children’s well-being in agriculture. The agriculture industry is consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous industries in the U.S. by the Department of Labor, right behind mining and construction. In North Carolina, children pick blueberries for our pies, tomatoes for our salads and sweet potatoes for our Thanksgiving casseroles. Children who are years away from being able to legally purchase a pack of cigarettes are also harvesting tobacco, being exposed to the equivalent of more than a pack’s worth of nicotine every day.
Laboring in the fields takes a heavy toll on a child’s life. Children are especially vulnerable to the dangers of heat stroke, nicotine poisoning, pesticide exposure and working with heavy machinery. Many pesticides used in the fields are known to have a more significant effect on children than adults, since their bodies are still growing and developing and they have a higher skin surface area to weight ratio. This means farmworker children are at a higher risk of developing cancer, nervous system problems and infertility down the road than most of us.
The physical wear and tear from doing heavy lifting and bending several hundred times a day in the field stays with children, affecting the growth of their developing bodies and often causing muscle and joint problems that will endure for the rest of their lives.
Moreover, many children literally give up their lives doing farm work every year. The children also risk losing their education. It’s estimated that more than half of the children who regularly work in the fields will drop out of high school.
The logic behind this outdated practice in North Carolina is that family farmers need their kids to work on the farm alongside the family. While the tradition of family farming should be preserved, the modern day reality is that the majority of children currently working in agriculture are hired by contractors to work on industrial-scale farms. This is a shameful oversight by our state’s leadership and by all of us as North Carolinians, and one that we should waste no time in addressing.
Recently, State Representative Jonathan Jordan (R-District 93) filed a bill in the General Assembly that would bring the agricultural child labor law up to date while preserving the exceptions for children working on their families’ farms. Simply put, the bill would treat children working in agriculture the same as children working in every other industry in our state. Now is the time to ensure the safety and well-being of all of North Carolina’s children for generations to come.
Emily Drakage is the North Carolina Regional Coordinator for the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs