U.S. Labor Law and Child Labor in Corporate Supply Chains

iStock_000000713748SmallHuman Rights Watch‘s recent report, Tobacco’s Hidden Children – Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming, seeks to draw attention to the presence of child labor on American tobacco farms and to the significant health and safety risks faced by young workers, including widespread acute nicotine poisoning. More generally, the report highlights key challenges for those concerned about human rights and corporate supply chains.

When considering whether adverse human rights impacts may be linked to their operations, many companies do not focus on potential risks associated with activities in the United States. Too often, American companies only discuss compliance with human rights standards in the context of their non-U.S. operations. As the Human Rights Watch report highlights, human rights concerns exist here in the United States and failure to address these concerns is a significant oversight.

For companies that source from U.S.-based farms, it is important to evaluate the extent to which child labor concerns are appropriately addressed by existing guidelines for suppliers. Many companies have drafted codes of conduct and vendor guidelines that prohibit child labor, but assume that compliance with national law, especially in the United States, will be sufficient to address human rights-related risks.

As Human Rights Watch observes in its report, however, “U.S. laws and policies governing child labor in tobacco are inconsistent with or in violation of international conventions on the rights of children.” This inconsistency extends beyond just the regulations applicable to tobacco farms and all companies that have agricultural suppliers in the United States should evaluate whether their existing supplier guidelines are sufficient to address the risks that children may be employed in hazardous conditions.

Human rights advocates have long sought to address the inconsistencies between U.S. legal provisions that allow children under 18 to perform certain forms of hazardous work and key international labor conventions, including ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor. The United States has ratified ILO Convention 182, which prohibits the employment of children under the age of 18 in hazardous work and, in recent years, U.S. policymakers have made attempts to update the Fair Labor Standards Act to address some of the inconsistencies between U.S. law and international standards.

To date, these reform efforts have been unsuccessful. As Human Rights Watch highlights in its report, current U.S. labor law “permits children to work in agriculture at younger ages, for longer hours, and in more hazardous conditions than children working in all other sectors.” Specifically,

Under U.S. law, there is no minimum age for a child to begin working on a small farm with parental permission. At age 12, a child can work for any number of hours outside of school on a farm of any size with parental permission, and at age 14 a child can work on any farm without parental permission. … At age 16, children working in agriculture can work in jobs deemed to be particularly hazardous, including operating certain heavy machinery or working at heights.

U.S. policymakers continue to face pressure to reform the laws that govern agricultural sector employment. Until such reforms are enacted, companies seeking to address human rights risks in their supply chains will need to ensure that their policies and guidelines do not overlook the potential for concerns associated with inconsistencies between U.S. law and international standards.

Human Rights Watch calls on companies to adopt and implement global policies, and contract provisions, that prohibit child labor, with specific prohibitions on hazardous work for children under 18. This recommendation is focused on purchasers of tobacco, but it is worthy of consideration by any company with agricultural suppliers.

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