March 24, 1998 in Nation/World

Child Labor Forum Takes Critical Look At Farm Conditions

Farrell Kramer Associated Press
 

Oscar Reyes has been working for more than half his life - and he’s only 9 years old.

Cutting paprika, bagging onions and topping garlic, sometimes for 10 hours a day, are a big part of Oscar’s life - which grabbed the attention of congressmen and others at a forum Monday on child labor in agriculture.

An education worker had to read Oscar’s statement because the 9-year-old was too young and too shy to do it himself. His father, Hurdias Reyes of Hollister, Calif., helped out, stumbling in broken English.

Oscar, who’s so small his black work boots dangled above the floor as he sat, managed only a few simple answers.

“Is it pretty hard, Oscar?” asked Rep. Tom Lantos, the California Democrat who chaired the forum.

“Yeah.”

“Yeah? Sometimes you get very tired?”

“Yeah,” Oscar squeaked.

“And very hot?

“Yeah.”

“And thirsty? And you’d rather go swimming?”

Oscar, who since age 4 has worked in the field with his parents after school, on weekends and during summer vacations, may not be the typical child worker. But Lantos and Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Calif., want to know whether the law adequately and equally protects children who work on America’s fields and farms.

Evidence presented at the forum suggests it does not.

A new report on child workers in agriculture compiled by the General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative arm, found that boys and girls doing farm work generally receive less protection under the law than children in other industries.

“Children working in agriculture are legally permitted to work at younger ages, in more hazardous occupations, and for longer periods of time than their peers in other industries,” it said.

Released at the hearing, the report also said that government agencies responsible for enforcement have devoted a “relatively low level” of resources to policing child workers in agriculture.

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