NEW YORK – Human Rights Watch, an internationally respected group that tracks rights issues worldwide, on Jan. 22 issued its annual worldwide report summarizing conditions in every nation in 2011. The report amounts to a stinging indictment of the United States in the area of labor rights:
“U.S. workers continue to face severe obstacles in forming and joining trade unions, and the federal government and many state governments are failing to meet their international obligations to protect the free exercise of these rights. Several states — including Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin — placed severe restrictions in 2011 on workers’ rights to bargain collectively.
“Hundreds of thousands of children work on U.S. farms. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act specifically exempts farmworker children from the minimum age and maximum hour requirements that apply to all other working children, exposing them to work at younger ages, for longer hours, and under more hazardous conditions.
“As a result, child farmworkers, most of who are of Latin American descent, often work 10 or more hours a day and risk pesticide poisoning, heat illness, injuries, life-long disabilities, and death. More than half of all working children who suffered fatal occupational injuries in 2010 worked in crop production, up from previous years.
“Many child farmworkers drop out of school, and girls are sometimes subjected to sexual harassment. Federal protections that exist are often not enforced: Agricultural inspections and child labor law violations declined in 2010. Notably, in August, the Department of Labor proposed to expand the list of hazardous agricultural tasks prohibited for children under age 16. (Outside agriculture, federal law bans hazardous work for children under age 18.)
“Millions of U.S. workers, including parents of infants, are harmed by weak or non-existent laws on paid leave, breastfeeding accommodation, and discrimination against workers with family responsibilities. A February 2011 Human Rights Watch report showed that having scarce or no paid leave contributed to delaying babies’ immunizations, postpartum depression, and other health problems, and caused mothers to stop breastfeeding early.”