EPA will work harder to protect under-age farmworkers from pesticides

Kudos to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) for its announcement this week that its pesticide assessments will now start to consider the high risks to under-age farmworkers, 12-17 yrs old, and young children that are taken into the fields while their parents work.

This is a really big deal! In fact, in 2003 NRDC joined with other groups including Farmworker Justice, EarthJustice, and others to file a legal challenge against EPA for not considering farmworker children under the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA). 

A report issued by Human Rights Watch called Fingers to the Bone: United States failure to protect child farmworkers,  documented the following narrative from one of thousands of child workers that labor in our fields, orchards, and packing operations:

Damaris A., now nineteen, started working in the broccoli and lettuce fields when she was thirteen years old and continued until she was nearly eighteen.  During the five months of peak season, she usually worked fourteen hours a day, with two fifteen-minute breaks and a half-hour for lunch. She often worked eighty-five or ninety hours a week. For months on end she suffered daily nosebleeds; several times her blood pressure plummeted and she nearly passed out. She was exposed to pesticide drift and fell ill, yet was required to keep working. I just endured it, she said, of her time in the fields. It was very difficult.

Statistically, only 55% of these young agriculture workers will finish high school, according to the above report. One-third reported earning less than minimum wage, as little as $2-3 per hour. In addition to unsafe working conditions and economic exploitation, many of these vulnerable young workers suffer sexual exploitation at the hands of their bosses.

Under the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act children as young as twelve can legally be employed in agriculture, with no limit on the number of hours they can work. Moreover, the Act fails to require overtime pay for agriculture workers. For all other occupations, the minimum age to be legally engaged in hazardous work is eighteen, but for agriculture it is fourteen. An estimated 85% of the seasonal and migrant farmworkers across the U.S. are racial minorities, mostly Latino, according to the Human Rights Watch report.

Thanks, EPA, for working towards making the lives of these children and young adults a little healthier.

More information on this subject can be found in our report, Trouble on the Farm, on our NRDC website.

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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