Congressional Report Confirms NBC Bay Area Investigation Into Children in the Fields

The findings in the new report confirm that child labor is more prominent than more people realize and that children working in agriculture suffer more than half of all work-related fatalities involving young people

Tens of thousands of children are working in America's agricultural fields. That's according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office, which publicly confirms what NBC Bay Area's Investigative Unit first reported six years ago.

After NBC Bay Area's first series of reports aired in 2012, Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Los Angeles, asked the GAO to investigate child labor in America.

The findings in the new report confirm that child labor is more prominent than more people realize and that children working in agriculture suffer more than half of all work-related fatalities involving young people.

View the full GAO report here.

Forty years after laws meant to prevent child labor in American workplaces passed Congress, agriculture remains exempt -- for the most part -- from US Labor Law allowing children 12 years old -- sometimes even younger -- to legally work the fields putting fresh fruit and vegetables on our plates.

Over the course of several months in 2012, the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit followed some of those children -- all of them American citizens -- as they worked the fields of California's Central Valley.

Among those the Investigative Unit spent time with was a teenager we called Ralph to protect his full identity.

Ralph has been working in the fields since he was 12 years old to help his family make ends meet.

"It is kind of hard because we have to go, go get it out of the field and put it in boxes and if it s like the grape is not good, then they will get mad at us," Ralph said in the previous interview with NBC Bay Area.

The Investigative Unit spoke with other children who worked in the fields when they were 8 years old.

Because of that, Roybal-Allard in 2016, asked the investigative office of Congress to look into child labor overall.

"I really do believe that children working in the agricultural fields is one of America's dirty little secrets, Roybal-Allard previously told the Investigative Unit. "It's an outrage." 

Some two years later the report is out showing at least 2.5 million children, ages 15 to 17, worked in 2017 mostly during the summer. The GAO shows more than half of all children who died on the job, were working in agriculture.

The GAO reports states "...while we estimated fewer than 5.5 percent of working children worked in agriculture… this population sustained more than 50 percent of all work related-child fatalities from 2003 to 2016.” work-related fatalities among children were in agriculture.”

The report counted deaths among child workers only between ages 15 and 17. But the GAO said younger children, including those 12 or even younger do work, many of them in agriculture.

The GAO further states that issue of younger children working and the safety risks associated with that should be studied further.

"There are today in this country children that are working in deplorable conditions and are not equally protected under our child labor laws," Roybal-Allard told the Investigative Unit in 2012. "And these are the children who work in agriculture."

In a statement released after this report finally came out, the congresswoman said the GAO's findings are "damning."

Here's the full statement provided by Roybal-Allard:

“The GAO report’s findings are damning. This report confirms that child labor is contributing to a devastating amount of fatalities in the United States – disproportionately so in the agricultural sector. In that industry, kids are often exposed to dangerous pesticides, heavy machinery, and extreme heat, and they are being killed as a result. That is unacceptable. Our government must take these findings as a call to action and build on them to collect more robust data on injuries and illnesses faced by children in America’s workforce. More than that, we urge the Trump administration and our entire federal government to protect our nation’s youth. That means enforcing policies that uphold the basic well-being of child workers, instead of rolling back child labor protections and lifesaving regulations. But we will not wait for the administration to take the lead. In the Democratic Majority, we will conduct vigorous oversight to ensure existing laws are being properly enforced, and push for changes where necessary to keep child workers safe.”

Roybal-Allard also says that the report confirms ”that children as young as 12 years old can be found working in the fields –and that has substantial health impacts on minors.”

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