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Child Labor in Wisconsin: Not much school, a lot of brutal work
12 year old farmworkers toil long hours in often harsh conditions in our agricultural fields
Gov. Walker has not suggested we close the public schools and put the idle children to work in our factories in order to balance the budget and be globally competitive. But there are some children in Wisconsin who are working long hours in harsh conditions and sometimes spend little time in school.

Children under age 14 cannot generally be employed in Wisconsin, but there are exceptions. Children 12 and over can be “employed in farming” if a parent consents, though the type of farming is not defined, and that is the problem.

There is the usually benign and wholesome “family farming”, and then there is the sort of farming done by “farmworkers” on larger farms, most of whom are migrant or “seasonal” laborers, overwhelmingly Latino, many of whom are undocumented. The pay is minimum wage ($7.25 per hour), benefits not provided. This form of agriculture, or “agribusiness”, can expose children to sharp tools and machines, powerful pesticides, serious illness and physical exhaustion. About 92% of farmworkers' children who are 12 and older are working in the fields of Wisconsin. 75% of the children who now work on farms across the nation are paid laborers.

Agriculture is considered to be the most dangerous form of work in the United States for children and teens, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 16 year-olds can legally perform “hazardous” work in agricultural fields.

Currently, there is no Wisconsin or federal law that limits the amount of hours per day or per week children can work in agriculture. Nor is there any extra pay for overtime.

Children under the age of 16 cannot work doing school hours, presumably because they are in school. But as a group, farmworkers have the lowest school enrollment in the United States, and only 13% of  these children manage to complete high school. Because migrant workers move often, their children leave and enter many schools, sometimes attending as much as five schools per year.

The exploitation of migrant farm labor and the inhumane child labor it spawns is a moral disgrace but it survives here because Wisconsin and the federal government so far refuse to seriously regulate it, there are desperate people willing to take the work, and many Americans expect cheap and plentiful food all year round.

There is, however, a federal bill called “The CARE Act” (Children’s Act for Responsible Employment”) that would begin to address the most serious child farmworker abuse by forcing agricultural employers (not parents on family farms) to abide by the same age requirements that apply to non-agricultural employment. To learn more about this bill and what you can do to help it along, you may click here to visit the Human Rights Watch website.

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