An American Dream
Last week, the Child Labor Coalition, working in partnership with Human Rights Watch, presented a Congressional briefing on the CARE Act, a pending bill to extend the protections of federal law to the hundreds of thousands of American children who work alongside their families to harvest our food. In this week’s Viewpoint, Monique Marie DeJong […]
Last week, the Child Labor Coalition, working in partnership with Human Rights Watch, presented a Congressional briefing on the CARE Act, a pending bill to extend the protections of federal law to the hundreds of thousands of American children who work alongside their families to harvest our food. In this week’s Viewpoint, Monique Marie DeJong has filed a report on the substance of this important hearing.It’s an astonishing fact that American children work unprotected from pesticide poisoning, heat, injury and accidental death in virtually every state, conditions we usually equate with poor, undeveloped countries. Equally surprising is that while America has ratified the International Labour Organization Convention 182 to prohibit the worst forms of child labor, we allow American children to work in open violation of this binding treaty. There’s an irony to this, as much of the funding for ILO projects to remove children from the worst forms of child labor around the world is provided by the United States through our Department of Labor. Somehow, while funding programs all over the world to promote education, we’ve overlooked those American children working in our own backyards.
DeJong’s report moves beyond policy and statistics and puts a personal face on the problem, relating the stories of children who work at the bottom of the American economy. Nearly sixty per cent of these children will eventually drop out of school, the by-product of leaving their communities before the school year has actually ended to help their families pick in other states. These children aren’t leaving school because they are stupid or lazy. The fact is, they work harder than most of us and in terrible working conditions. Like our children, migrant children have dreams of becoming teachers, pilots, doctors, builders, the whole gamut of possibilities – but the economic necessity of helping their family forces them to sacrifice their educations and to set their dreams aside.
I remember Dora, a young girl from Eagle Pass, Texas, I met while filming Stolen Childhoods, telling me that she’d never seen the end of the school year and never attended a party to celebrate with her friends. Instead, she would leave with her family for Michigan, where she’d work 16-hour days picking whatever was ripe. For Dora, her teen years were a blur of picking onions for a penny a pound.
These are our children. The Congress needs to pass the CARE Act to make it illegal for children under 18 to work in U.S. agriculture and to bring the United States into conformity with ILO Convention 182. The United States should be leading on this issue. These children should be studying, not picking onions, so that they can share in the American dream and realize their potential. Each of these children is an investment in the future health and wealth of our country.
Often I write in this column about what’s possible when people take it upon themselves to start something to try to make a difference in the lives of children. I know of no better example than my friends Paul and Shelley Miller who were touched by the circumstances of orphaned children while vacationing in Kenya several years ago and stepped up to do something about it. Like many people of vision, the Millers jumped first and have been learning from their experience ever since. They don’t pretend to have all the answers, they just work real hard at what they do and what they do is educate kids and foster dreams on the other side of the world.
In his Viewpoint this week, Paul Miller, Executive Director of African Kids in Need, gives us a heartening look at AKIN’s efforts to educate children in Kenya.
There is a clarity to the mission of AKIN, to do whatever is necessary to help children succeed. In just a few short years, they have built a staff and program that is transforming young lives. It’s a testament to what people can do when they care enough to commit their time and resources to work for others. It’s clear from reading Paul’s entry that it’s been well worth the effort.