Child Labor In Agriculture:

Changes Needed to Better Protect Health and Educational Opportunities

HEHS-98-193: Published: Aug 21, 1998. Publicly Released: Sep 17, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed: (1) the extent and prevalence of children working in agriculture, including their injuries and fatalities; (2) the federal legislative protections and those in selected states for children working in agriculture; (3) the enforcement of these laws as they apply to children working in agriculture; and (4) federal educational assistance programs and how they address the needs of children in migrant and seasonal agriculture, focusing on those aged 14 to 17.

GAO noted that: (1) according to one nationally representative estimate, about 116,000 15- to 17-year-olds worked as hired agricultural workers in 1997; (2) this estimate may undercount the number of children employed in agriculture because of methodological limitations in making the estimates; (3) of all children working in agriculture, between 400 and 600 suffer work-related injuries each year; (4) between 1992 and 1996, 59 children lost their lives while working in agriculture; (5) changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) have resulted in more protection for children working in agriculture than when the law was first passed; (6) nevertheless, FLSA and state laws provide less protection for children working in agriculture than for children working in other industries; (7) consequently, children may work in agriculture under circumstances that would be illegal in other industries; (8) weaknesses in current enforcement and data collection procedures limit the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division's (WHD) ability to detect violations involving children working in agriculture; (9) enforcement activities devoted to agriculture have declined in the past 5 years, as has the number of detected cases of agricultural child labor violations; (10) WHD has not established the procedures necessary for documenting whether children are working in agriculture in violation of child labor laws, nor has it routinely followed established procedures for facilitating enforcement coordination for better detecting illegal child labor in agriculture; (11) WHD's enforcement database does not identify all child labor-related violations under FLSA, nor can WHD and other enforcement agencies identify the extent to which children are involved in other types of labor law violations; (12) the Departments of Education and Labor have many programs to improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged school-aged children; however, few of these programs specifically target migrant and seasonal agricultural child workers or children of such workers, and most collect no information on the number of such children served; and (13) even for the two largest programs that target some or all of this population, program operations and subsequent data limitations impede a national evaluation of these programs' results for this target population.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: Considering the evolutionary changes that are transforming the agricultural industry and the increased emphasis on the safety, health, and academic achievement of children, Congress may wish to formally reevaluate whether FLSA adequately protects children who are hired to work as migrant and seasonal farmworkers.

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Since this report was released, Congress has begun to reevaluate current protections for children in agriculture. GAO's findings were instrumental in helping to form Representative Tom Lantos' Young American Workers' Bill of Rights as well as Senator Harkin's Children's Act for Responsible Employment. Both bills would seek to eliminate the disparate protections between work done by agricultural child workers and non-agricultural child workers. However, these bills have yet to make it out of committee.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve Labor's detection and reporting of illegal child labor in agriculture, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary of Employment Standards to test the feasibility of collecting data on the number of minimum-wage and other labor law violations that involve individuals under 18.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: When this recommendation was made, the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) reported that it would examine the feasibility of collecting this data, but raised concerns about the potential cost of developing such data collection systems in light of how the data will be used. WHD has now decided that such a recommendation is not cost-effective and that there are better ways to collect data, such as through the National Agricultural Worker's Survey. However, these survey data are self-reported rather than enforcement-based, which would not provide a true picture of the extent to which children under 18 are involved in various types of labor law violations.

    Recommendation: To improve Labor's detection and reporting of illegal child labor in agriculture, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary of Employment Standards to develop a method for identifying the number of record-keeping violations resulting from employers not having children's ages on file as required by FLSA.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: WHD's WHISARD database has been modified so that entries are required to capture and report both the number of employers that failed to maintain the required child labor records, and the number of employees involved in these violations.

    Recommendation: To improve Labor's detection and reporting of illegal child labor in agriculture, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary of Employment Standards to take steps to ensure that procedures specified in the existing agreements among WHD and other federal and state agencies--especially regarding referrals to and from other agencies, joint inspections, and exchange of information--are being followed and, as required in some agreements, are being recorded and tracked.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 1999, WHD released revised guidance in its Field Operations Handbook that required additional cooperation requirements for inspectors to follow, including documenting referrals from state agencies regarding potential violations in weekly reports and listing referrals from other agencies as "complaints" rather than "referrals." However, the procedures still do not address the possibility of joint inspections, or exchange of other information about employers--which are often included in the agreements WHD has with state or other agencies. Nonetheless, WHS has adapted its database to include entry screens to document complaint referrals that advise the agency of the number of referrals and their disposition. WHD has also developed a new form that will be used to notify other agencies of possible violations of other agencies' laws.

    Recommendation: To improve Labor's detection and reporting of illegal child labor in agriculture, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary of Employment Standards to issue national enforcement procedures specifying the actions WHD inspectors should take during agricultural inspections when documentation for verifying a child's age is missing or potentially fraudulent or when existing documentation does not reflect a child's possible employment.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 1999, Labor's Wage and Hour Division released revised guidance for its Field Operations Handbook that fundamentally changed the way investigators should investigate potential child labor violations in agriculture. The guidance addresses the key difficulties faced by inspectors, namely, lack of or fraudulent documentation of age and work status. Inspectors are now required to first locate and interview any children who appear younger than 16, then request documentation of their age and work status from employers. This represents a change in procedure from before, when investigators first contacted the employer and had to ask permission of the employer to interview workers. Also, investigators are encouraged to initially take videotapes or still photos to document children working. Investigators are also encouraged to visit the fields when they believe children are likely to be working.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary of the Employment and Training Administration to develop and analyze data on Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Program services and outcomes for children aged 14 to 17 to determine the number of these children served, the services provided, and the outcomes experienced by these children.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: ETA had originally agreed that it would be helpful to have a data set on services provided to younger youth, 14-17, and said that the new Workforce Investment Act of 1999 (WIA), which became effective in 2000, gave them the opportunity to address GAO's recommendation. In the new WIA environment, there are outcome measures for migrant and seasonal farmworker youth. However, the categories continue to be set up as 14-18 year olds and 19-21 year olds rather than 14-17 and 18-21. GAO continues to believe that 18 year olds should not be included with the younger youth, as service needs for 18 year olds are very different than for younger children.

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