12 March 2012, New Delhi: The U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL)’s Wage and Hour Division owing to pressure from farm groups has recently decided to re-propose ‘parental exemption’ for child labour engaged in agriculture in the U.S. The parental exemption allows children of any age who are employed by their parent, or a person standing in the place of a parent, to perform any job on a farm owned or operated by their parent or such person standing in the place of a parent. The rule of parental exemption was first introduced in 1966 by the Congress when protection was expanded for children employed in agriculture and prohibited their employment in jobs that the USDOL declared hazardous for children below the age of 16 years to perform.
The uproar by the farming community regarding parental exemption came about when in September last year, USDOL published for comments its proposed rule on child labour in agriculture to increase protections for children working in agriculture while preserving the benefits that safe and healthy work can provide. The proposed rule was a step by the Wage and Hour Division towards updating its 40-year-old child labour regulations driven by studies showing that children are significantly more likely to be killed while performing agricultural work than while working in all the other industries combined. The farm groups protested against the proposed rule on the grounds that it only exempted children working on farms wholly owned or operated by their parents and did not include thousands of farms owned by closely held corporations or partnerships of family members and other relatives – this would upset traditions where children often work alongside their parents and relatives to learn how a farm operates. Responding to this criticism, the re-proposal with regard to parent exemption will now be broader to include exemptions for children whose parents are part owners or operators of farms, or have a substantial interest in a farm partnership or corporation. The USDOL plans to publish by early summer this year the re-proposal for public comments to seek inputs for complying with the statutory requirements to protect children while respecting rural traditions.
As per the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Global Report most child labourers continue to work in agriculture (60%), and it is one of the most hazardous occupations that exposes children to harm. There is growing recognition of the hazards of child labour in agriculture globally. And, this step to exempt child labour in family farms in the U.S. is in stark contrast to USDOL’s efforts against global child labour. The USDOL annually publishes a global list of goods produced by child labour (and forced labour) to raise public awareness about the existence of child labour in the production of goods in the countries listed and to promote efforts to eradicate such practices. As per the USDOL’s 2011 list, agricultural sector has the largest number of child labourers as out of the 119 goods listed in ‘produced by child labour category’, 56 are agricultural goods made with child labour. Child labour in many of these countries is family child labour working on the landing of their parents or of close relatives.
According to Global March Against Child Labour, USDOL’s re-proposal of parental exemption tantamount to dual standards by the US where while child labour at home is being promoted, countries with child labour (also within the family farms) are being encouraged to take steps for its eradication. Further, if such a re-proposal is finalised, it is likely that USDOL may be compelled by countries to extend the parental exemption to the child labour definition used for inclusion of countries and their goods in the list of goods made with child labour and forced labour. Given that agriculture is one of the most dangerous sectors to work in at any age and even more dangerous for children, Global March is of the view that child labour in agriculture should not be allowed in any part of the world and in any form- whether as family labour or as hired labour.