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Agencies Pledge to Curb Abuse of Child Farmworkers

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.