FLSA protects, among other groups, child laborers. When it was enacted, farming was primarily a family activity, and it was understood that children would help on the family farm. Thus, the restrictions on agricultural work are much less stringent. By the end of the twentieth century, the number of family farms had dwindled, and most farming was done on large commercial establishments. But the lax restrictions remained, and farm conglomerates took advantage of this.
Under FLSA, no child under the age of 13 can work in a nonagricultural setting, and children of 14 and 15 can work but only for a set number of hours each day. For children working on a farm, the situation is quite different. Children can go to work in the fields as young as nine years old in some states, as long as they have signed parental consent.
Even with the relaxed standards for agricultural work, children are often overworked, are expected to work during what would be school hours, and are paid far less than what is legally required. A report issued in 2000 by Human Rights Watch noted that children under the age of 16 are often required to put in several hours before the school day begins; during the summer months they may work 12-hour days.
The dangers of agricultural work are surprisingly many, and for minors these dangers are even more troubling. Agricultural workers can be exposed to pesticides and other chemicals. They may be sent to work in oppressive heat but without adequate water to keep from becoming dehydrated. Often, they work with heavy or dangerous equipment—equipment that children often have little experience with. Because they work long hours, often having to rise before dawn to begin their work, lack of sleep is a major problem. For children, this is not only more dangerous, it also curtails their ability to succeed in school. Injury is common; children can fall or have accidents with heavy equipment or sharp objects.
It is important to remember that many adult farm workers are also exploited, forced to work long hours for little pay. Often, families are so poor and desperate that they feel compelled to give their young children permission to work on the farm, thus bringing in a small but needed amount of extra money.
Organizations such as Human Rights Watch have urged the U.S. government to revise FLSA to offer additional protection to minor children working on farms, and to ensure that farms are more careful about whom they hire and also more diligent about improving working conditions and wages.