NEW YORK — Year after year, to little avail, activist groups have been urging bolder federal action to curtail the health risks and exploitation endured by the legion of children who labor on America's farms.
This week, against the backdrop of a stinging new report from Human Rights Watch, two federal agencies are pledging to do better. And prospects are brightening, though still uncertain, for a pending bill in Congress that would close loopholes that facilitate many of the abuses.
Human Rights Watch, which focuses most of its investigative work overseas, had examined the exploitation of America's child farmworkers in a report 10 years ago. It documented the harm many of these children suffered to their health and education, and assailed existing legal protections as weak and poorly enforced.
In its new report, released Wednesday, the group said conditions for the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 child farmworkers "remain virtually as they were" and faulted Congress, the Labor Department and the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to take effective action.
"The Labor Department has done a very bad job up to now," said report author Zama Coursen-Neff, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Children's Rights Division. "I've investigated child labor in India, in El Salvador. Child labor in America looks like some of those places. It looks like what people think happens only in other countries."
Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, who shares a Hispanic background with a majority of the young farmworkers, commended Human Rights Watch for its report and said ending illegal child labor is a top priority of her department.
"We simply cannot — and this administration will not — stand by while youngsters working on farms are robbed of their childhood," Solis said Wednesday. The agency has added more than 250 new field investigators in the last year and planned to add even more, she said.
Human Rights Watch also criticized the EPA, saying its regulations regarding pesticide use on farms did not adequately consider the special vulnerabilities of child workers.
In response, the EPA said it was working to strengthen its assessment of pesticide health risks, in part to improve conditions for child workers, and expected to propose amendments to federal worker protection standards by 2012.
"Many of the concerns mentioned in the Human Rights Watch report are sound," the EPA said.
Whatever federal agencies try to do, many child farmworkers may remain exposed to onerous conditions unless Congress passes a bill that would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act regulating child labor.
Under that 1938 law, enacted when family farms abounded, children working on farms are allowed to work longer hours, at a younger age and in more hazardous conditions than children in other jobs.
Children as young as 12 can work on farms, as opposed to at least 14 or 16 for other jobs. For nonfarm jobs, there's a limit of three hours of work a day outside school hours while school is in session; young farmworkers can work unlimited hours outside school.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., has introduced a bill that would eliminate those discrepancies, increase penalties for violations and require the Labor Department to collect better data on the number of child laborers and the injuries they suffer. It would continue to exempt children working on their parents' farms.
The bill has 87 co-sponsors, and Roybal-Allard is optimistic of getting more support. She noted that Solis wrote to the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee this week calling for "robust legislation" to strengthen protections of child farmworkers.
No Republican, however, has signed on as a co-sponsor, and the American Farm Bureau — which advocates in Washington on behalf of farmers and ranchers — opposes it.
"We think it's going too far to resolve a problem that's very isolated," said Ron Gaskill, the bureau's senior director of congressional relations. "At what point do you take away the opportunity for rural youth to get gainful work experience?"
The U.S. Agriculture Department, while not directly involved in labor regulation, said it would support tougher enforcement.
"Farmers and ranchers, most of whom are law-abiding citizens, should not have their efforts to provide a safe and abundant supply of food and fiber tainted by those taking advantage of the most vulnerable in our society," said USDA spokesman Caleb Weaver.
Roybal-Allard said she often hears from skeptics of her bill that some farmworker families need the extra money earned by their children.
"We have cheapest food in the world. You'd think we'd be able to pay a living wage to these families," she said in a telephone interview. "These families really pay a much greater price in the health and safety of their children."
Among the persistent problems cited by Roybal-Allard and Human Rights Watch:
—Children working on farms typically make less than the minimum wage.
—They drop out of school at four times the national rate.
—Safety risks are high, contributing to at least 43 work-related deaths of child farmworkers between 2005 and 2008.
—Current law allows 16- and 17-year-olds to do farm work that the Labor Department deems "particularly hazardous." In nonfarm sectors, no one under 18 can do such jobs.
Activists said the problems for some farmworker families are compounded because one or more members are illegal immigrants who are wary of turning to government authorities when their children are in danger.
"Employers know the chances of being caught are slim, and the fines are almost laughable," said Norma Flores Lopez, who picked crops with her migrant family as a teenager and now works with the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs on a campaign combatting exploitation of child laborers.
"It's been an uphill battle," she said. "We're dealing with children who don't vote, and for the most part parents who don't vote. A lot of politicians tend to overlook them."
Another former child farmworker, Maria Mandujano, is a relatively rare success story who finished high school and is completing her sophomore year at the University of Idaho.
The 19-year-old said she suffers recurring back pains stemming from long hours picking zucchini for $6.75 an hour when she was an adolescent who had pressed her parents to let her help earn sorely needed income for the family.
"It was very tedious, very hard," she said in a telephone interview. "Yes, children are capable of doing this work, because they're young, but physically it can affect them in the long run."
On the Net:
Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org