While many of us may think of child labor as a historical or far-off problem, it is right here – in our own backyards. For me, that is the Commonwealth of Kentucky in the United States.

From 1916 to 1918, photographer Lewis Hines traveled the United States on a campaign to photograph child laborers. As part of the National Child Labor Committee, Hines sought to document child labor and advocate for laws that would end the practices, which put millions of children at risk of injury and death each year. The campaign was successful, and child labor seemed to recede in the national mindset.

But we were fooled.

In Kentucky, child labor still exists today. Under state law, there are restrictions on the number of hours that children aged 14 to 17 may work each week. Under 803 KAR 1:100, these restrictions allow children to work between 18 to 30 hours per week while school is in session (depending on age and day of the week) and up to 40 hours per week when school is not in session. The hours of work must also fall between 7 am and 7 pm for those aged 14-15 and 6 am and 10:30 pm for those aged 16-17.

Courtesy Kentucky Labor Cabinet.

Now, we could spend the rest of this post analyzing how a 14-year-old working 18 hours per week leaves very little room for homework, socialization, mental health care, and other activities crucial to their well-being. But I’ll save that for another day (or another author). What I want to draw attention to is that there are several caveats to these laws. And that’s where the United States runs into problems. Caveats like those found in Kentucky’s laws are where child labor becomes severely problematic.


The first is that these laws only apply to minors who have not yet graduated. That gifted child who graduated high school by age 15 or 16? They can go to work without restrictions the day after graduation.

The second is KRS 339.225, which states that children as young as age eleven can be employed as golf caddies. A caddy is someone who carries the golf clubs, provides direction and assistance to players, and maintains the course during play by replacing divots, repairing ball marks, raking sand traps, etc. This is all done outdoors, sometimes in very hot weather, and involves walking an 18-hole golf course while carrying a bag of loaded golf clubs which average 25 to 35 pounds. (Note: Kentucky law requires caddies aged 11 or 12 to use a pull cart.) Let’s do this math: a 13-year-old child, weighing on average 100 pounds, can be employed to caddy one round of golf each day, during which the child will pull a cart with a minimum 25 pound bag of clubs (that’s one-quarter of the child’s weight) during an 18-hole round of golf that on average lasts 4 to 5 hours.

Kentucky law allows an 13-year-old child to spend 5 hours per day carrying one-quarter of their weight outdoors while also performing additional physical labor repairing a golf course.

Now, let’s turn to the third and probably worst part of child labor laws. The not regulated part of child labor. Kentucky is among 17 states in which child labor is exempted from or not listed in child labor laws. This means that children can work unrestricted in Kentucky’s agricultural sector. Additionally, under federal law:

Under the US Fair Labor Standards Act, children can at age 12 legally work unlimited hours on farms of any size with parental permission, as long as they do not miss school. There is no minimum age for children to work on small farms or family farms. Children working in agriculture can do jobs at age 16 that health and safety experts deem particularly hazardous, while in all other sectors, workers must be 18 to do hazardous work.

Human Rights Watch, 2022

In 2021, Louisville Public Media published results of a study that found Kentucky had some of the worst regulations for children and farm work in the nation, despite agriculture being one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Several studies by the Human Rights Watch and other organizations have found that more children die in agriculture than any other industry, with an average of 33 children injured each day while working on United States’ farms. And that doesn’t include the long-term effects of exposure to agricultural crops and chemicals, such as children who work tobacco farms and receive acute nicotine poisoning from handling the crop.

So what can we do?

“Children as young as 12 are being hired to do backbreaking work on US farms, at risk of serious injuries, heat stroke, pesticide poisoning, and even death. The CARE Act would provide child farmworkers with important protections given to children working in all other sectors.”

Margaret Wurth, Human Rights Watch

In 2019, Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard introduced HR 3394, the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety (CARE Act). The act would revise labor provisions at the federal level, protecting child workers across the nation and increasing civil and criminal penalties for those who violate child labor laws. Specifically, the act would raise the minimum age for agriculture to age 14 and the minimum age for hazardous work to age 18, while imposing new reporting requirements, especially related to agricultural employment. As of time of writing, the bill is still stuck as “introduced”.

Contact your congressional representative to push for this bill to become part of our legislative agenda.

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