Guest Opinion: An exceptional U.S. remains exceptional on child labor-Xinhua

Guest Opinion: An exceptional U.S. remains exceptional on child labor

Source: Xinhua| 2022-05-17 09:28:15|Editor:

by Xin Ping

BEIJING, May 17 (Xinhua) -- The September 1906 edition of Cosmopolitan magazine recounted a story about a Native American chieftain given a tour of New York. When asked what he found most surprising about this modern city, he replied slowly in three words, "little children working."

The chief would likely be more astounded if he visited the United States today. Despite claiming to uphold human rights worldwide, the United States permits child labor in agriculture with no minimum age requirement.

In fact, the law considers children ready to work in hazardous agricultural jobs when they reach the age of 16. Sadly, children aged 15 to 17 are four times more likely to die on a farm than in other workplaces, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Some may argue that child labor in agriculture is legally protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). However, despite rapid technological and automation advancements, as well as mounting evidence of occupational hazards, the FLSA has remained essentially unchanged since its adoption in 1938.

According to DOL statistics, farming is one of the deadliest jobs in the United States, twice as deadly as law enforcement, five times firefighting and 73 times Wall Street investment banking.

Despite the justification, including building stamina and developing a good work ethic, exposure to transportation accidents, mechanical problems, pollutants and toxins risk the lives of children toiling in the fields.

Farm children's risks are exacerbated by long working hours, which are not limited by federal or state law. Children in some states work 72 hours per week or more than 10 hours per day.

In 2012 alone, at least 1,800 U.S. children were injured during farming. Between 2003 and 2016, more than half of U.S. child deaths in the workplace occurred in agriculture-related accidents. Farm-workers make up less than a fifth of America's child workforce, yet they suffered more deaths between 2003 and 2013 than all other child workers combined.

When it comes to alleviating the suffering of child laborers in agriculture, the biggest foe is the United States itself.

The DOL did propose updated hazardous work lists on farms in 2011, which would have removed children from most tobacco work. However, this elicited an angry response from interest groups, who argued that the cost of labor would skyrocket in agricultural production and successfully convinced the DOL to withdraw the planned rule change.

The approximately 500,000 child farmworkers cannot push for reform on their own because they are not entitled to vote, the only tool the public has to influence the government's agenda, let alone form a constituency to which politicians can appeal in elections.

The lack of commitment to end child labor is not confined to U.S. borders. Among all State Parties to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the United States has ratified fewer ILO conventions than most other countries.

One convention left unsigned by the U.S. is the Minimum Age Convention, which specifies that "the minimum age ... shall not be less than the age of completion of compulsory schooling and, in any case, shall not be less than 15 years."

It is too obvious to deny that America's future is giving way to the immediate interests of the rich and powerful.

Not every child has a typical childhood. Still, far too many children have their childhoods cut short. However, few countries and governments would sit on their hands for more than 80 years.

If this is what "being exceptional" entails, then the United States is keeping its word on child labor. Enditem

(Xin Ping is a commentator on international affairs, writing regularly for Global Times, China Daily, etc. He can be reached at