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Since the 1970s, there have been two very different sets of rules for young workers in this country: one that applies to teenage agricultural workers, and one for everyone else.

“Most teenagers in America can’t get a job until they turn 16,” says Norma Flores López, director of the Children in the Fields Campaign at the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. But when it comes to farm work, kids as young as 12 who are not in school can start working for an unlimited number of hours alongside adults — as long as they have parental permission.

“During the summer we talk to kids who are out there working 12-hour days, seven days a week,” says Lopez. “And we’ve seen the effects it has. Many farmworker kids are unable to finish high school (they have four times the national dropout rate), let alone go to college — so they’re continuing the cycle of poverty.”

Most teen employers (think movie theaters, grocery stores, the Gap) must follow an array of federal and state rules limiting the hours and types of jobs teens can work. But within the notoriously dangerous agriculture industry, scant protections exist for young farmworkers.

They often work with livestock, handle toxic pesticides, and run heavy machinery; the results are frequently catastrophic. In 2010 alone, five kids under 16 died in grain silo accidents where the corn acted like quicksand, sucking them down and suffocating them within minutes. In July, two 14-year-old girls were electrocuted by an irrigation system. According to Human Rights Watch, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that out of the 35 children who died of work-related injuries in 2010, 19 had been working in crop production.

None of this surprises Flores, who started working on farms at an early age. But she says she’s seen the industry grow more and more dangerous as time passes. “We hear about deaths and injuries like this every summer, among teenagers who are just getting started in life,” she says.

Changes ahead

There is some hope on the horizon. Last week, the Department of Labor (DOL) proposed changes to the existing rules governing youth who work in agriculture; if they pass, underage workers would no longer be allowed to herd cattle or work in grain elevators. Those under 16 would be prohibited from dangerous tasks like driving farm equipment and harvesting tobacco.

These proposed changes have been a long time coming: It’s been 40 years since the Fair Labor Standards Act was amended to address child labor. And despite recent hold-ups (In These Times “Working” blog reports that the proposal was held up at the DOL for a full nine months), the changes will likely pass in one form or another.

The intention, says the DOL, is to “bring parity” between the two sets of rules (those for farm workers and those for youth working in “nonagricultural workplaces”).

Flores is cautious when speaking about the issue. “We do recognize it as a historic step forward,” she says, but making the workplace less hazardous isn’t the only step necessary to move toward what she sees as true parity.

Flores believes the new tobacco rules, for instance, won’t go far enough. She points to the fact that workers who participate in the harvest absorb as much nicotine as one would get smoking 36 cigarettes a day. Younger workers are especially vulnerable to nicotine, and often fall ill with something called “green tobacco sickness” (a non-lethal but harmful form of nicotine overdose). And because the harvest takes place in southern states like North Carolina during the hottest time of year, wearing protective clothing puts workers at risk for dehydration.

“If you think about the way our federal laws are set,” she adds, “kids aren’t allowed to buy cigarettes until they’re 18. And even if these new rules pass, we’ll still be allowing 16-year-olds to work in that environment.”

The tobacco rule highlights a unique problem: Even if the law passes, the two-year gap means kids 16-18 could still work in these same hazardous conditions. But the DOL can only impact child labor through “hazardous work orders,” which apply to those 16 and under. Changing the conditions for those in the 16- to 18-year-old age range would take an act of Congress.

Critics of the bill worry that it will impact some farmers who rely on their own children for support. But it’s not yet clear whether the rule would actually make employing family members any more difficult on genuine family farms.

There is currently an exemption in the rules for family farmers, and Flores believes it should continue. Children who work with relatives on genuine family farms are far less likely to engage in hazardous tasks without close supervision. “If your child is working alongside you, chances are he or she will be protected in a different way than a 12-year-old child working out in the fields of a huge agribusiness.”

A ways to go

Ironically, the U.S. has been a key voice in fighting child labor elsewhere through the International Labor Organization’s Convention 182 on child labor.

According to Zama Coursen-Neff of Human Rights Watch, international child labor laws specify that work should not be “damaging to the health morals or safety of a child” and set the cut-off age at 15-years-old in most of the world (for some developing nations it’s 14).

“These rules will help the U.S. follow international law, but they won’t fix the whole problem,” says Coursen-Neff. “Ultimately it’s up to Congress to do that.”

Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition at the National Consumers League, agrees. “These proposed regulations must be implemented as soon as possible to protect teen workers in agriculture,” he says.

More importantly, though, Maki hopes to see laws that go further by blocking very young teens from working in what are otherwise considered “normal” conditions for many farm workers — namely very long days in relentless, 100-degree heat with few breaks and little protection from the elements.

“A child cannot work in an air-conditioned office making copies at age 12. Why should they be allowed to perform back-breaking labor under harsh and dangerous conditions in the fields?”

The proposed changes to the rules will be up for public comment until Nov. 1.