But what's concerning about recent developments is that some of today's working minors don't seem to be performing innocuous jobs that will instill in them a strong work ethic and understanding of responsibility. Rather, they're in jobs that can—and have—jeopardized their health and safety.
For example, agricultural employers are largely exempt from the sections of the Fair Labor Standards Act that prohibit minors from working. That’s led to 13-year-olds working in tobacco fields, where they can be exposed to nicotine poisoning.
A Human Rights Watch report published earlier this year found that in states such as Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, child workers spend 50 to 60 hours a week in tobacco fields, where they are “exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides, and other dangers.”
The group interviewed 141 child tobacco workers between the ages of 7 and 17, and 75 percent of the children said they had sudden onset of nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, and difficulty breathing while working in the fields.
“I can stand the heat for a long time, but when they spray [pesticides], then I start to feel woozy and tired. Sometimes it looks like everything is spinning,” one 14-year-old told the interviewers.
Many countries, including Brazil and India, prohibit children under 18 from working in the tobacco fields, according to the report. In 1999, the U.S. ratified a International Labor Organization Convention Covering the Prohibition and Immediate Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor, which included prohibiting children under 18 from work that “is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.”
In 2011, Hilda Solis, then the Secretary of Labor, proposed prohibiting farmworkers under 16 from working in the tobacco fields. She also suggested strengthening child-labor laws around agricultural work with animals, pesticides, timber, manure pits, and storage bins (two teenagers died in 2010 after being trapped in a grain bin).
The reaction was swift, with complaints about what happens when “big-city bureaucrats try to craft policies for rural America.” Some farmers protested that it would keep their kids from doing chores around the farm (Solis also suggested an exemption for children of farmers).
State legislatures across the country introduced bills asking their Congressional delegations to oppose changes to the child-labor exemptions.
The Obama Administration scrapped the proposed rules in 2012.
“Why does agriculture deserve an exemption for kids working on farms not owned by their parents?” asked Reid Maki, director of child-labor advocacy at the National Consumer’s League.* “Is it safer than other workplaces? The answer is categorically no. It’s one of the most dangerous workplaces in America.”
Child labor on farms helps fuel a cycle of poverty where kids drop out of school or perform poorly so that they can work as many hours as possible, he said. Accidents on farms can be particularly grisly: Last year, one teen lost his arm to a farm machine in Virginia, and a 14-year-old worker was killed in a collision with farming equipment in Idaho, according to Cultivate Safety, an advocacy group.