Congressional Briefing Discusses Hidden Problems of Child Labor in America
“I wasn’t asked to work. I wanted to work to help my family,” said Maria Mandujano, a former child farmworker-cum-activist with Student Action for Farmworkers and college student, who spoke on a panel to a standing-room-only crowd at last Monday’s congressional briefing in Washington, D.C. on child labor in America. The panel also included Norma […]
“I wasn’t asked to work. I wanted to work to help my family,” said Maria Mandujano, a former child farmworker-cum-activist with Student Action for Farmworkers and college student, who spoke on a panel to a standing-room-only crowd at last Monday’s congressional briefing in Washington, D.C. on child labor in America. The panel also included Norma Flores, another former child farmworker and director for the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, Zama Coursen-Neff, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Children’s Rights Division, and U. Roberto Romano, award-winning filmmaker and director of the documentary The Harvest/La Cosecha.
Trailer for The Harvest
The briefing began with a trailer screening of “The Harvest,” a film that intimately traces the lives of American child farmworkers. According to the National Agriculture Statistics Service, more than 400,000 children aged 12-17 nationwide worked in agriculture in 1998, and similar to the children depicted in the film, Mandujano at age 11 began helping her family by spending her summers toiling in fields, often in 98- to 100-degree weather conditions.
Like Mandujano, Norma Flores spent her spring breaks harvesting onions in similar weather. During break, her friends would venture off to fun, warm places and get suntans, but Flores mortifyingly had to admit that she got her sunburns from working in the fields, not from spending her vacation on the beach. When she arrived back to school from spring break, she would have to explain to her teachers that she could not finish her homework because her hands were too sore and swollen. Mandujano now has frequent back pain from working as a child, and both Mandujano and Flores are worried about the long-term health affects of pesticide exposure.
As Flores noted, farmers or contractors would often forget to supply water to farmworkers, and would allow them to work in fields fresh and wet with pesticides or even when fields were being sprayed with pesticides by aircraft. Flores’ father’s complaints were often met with chuckles from the contractor.
Unfortunately, since the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 exempts farmworkers and their children, children as young as 12 are legally allowed to work unlimited hours in one of the top three most dangerous occupations, but sometimes, children as young as eight are seen picking crops. These children are frequently exposed to extreme weather, dangerous tools and machinery, and pesticides. Subjecting children to these deplorable conditions sometimes result in death.
In May of 2008, 17-year-old María Isabel Vásquez Jiménez in California died of heat stroke in the fields. As Coursen-Neff noted, the coroner declared Jiménez’s core temperature to be 108 degrees at death. According to the Center for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health statistics, in 2001 an estimated 16,851 youths from 0-19 of age who live on U.S. farms were injured, and from 1995-2000, an estimated 695 youths from 16-19 years of age died on US farms. The latter statistics only take into consideration those children who are on payroll.
Children in the fields also suffer from sexual harassment and violence, as Coursen-Neff mentioned, but few reports document these issues, and statistically, farmworker children are often held back more than once in school. As one child told her, “Going from place to place scrambles things in my mind.”
Introduced by US Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-East Los Angeles), the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment of 2009, also known as the CARE Act, would create the work hour standards for children in agriculture to reflect the standards for children who work in all other industries, increase minimum and maximum penalties for child labor violations, establish greater protections against pesticide exposure, and require better data collection on work-related injuries, illness, and deaths among children under 18. As of February 18, 2010, the CARE Act is co-sponsored by 70 members of Congress and endorsed by 53 organizations.
Although a new, á la mode generation of films and books (like Food, Inc. and Fast Food Nation) dissect the origins of our food, little discussion covers who actually picks our food. To this, Coursen-Neff, who has specialized in child rights for over 10 years, said, “I think that people truly don’t know. I think that people do care and don’t want to buy [commodities] picked by children.”
Indeed, few people realize child labor in America is a sweeping problem, even in communities where child labor is most prevalent, such as the Latino communities. In an interview with Héctor E. Sánchez, director of policy and research of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), he said, “Even though we endorse the CARE Act, [watching the trailer] was a real eye-opener for me. In the last couple of years, not even one single time did I hear about the CARE Act. Sometimes it’s necessary to see a film and to hear the voices of children as a reminder as to why this needs to be a legislative priority.”
When asked why he thinks LCLAA has not made the CARE Act a priority until recently, Sánchez said, “To be honest, we have so many issues that are urgent in the Latino community, but the fact that I saw those issues and heard those children’s voices first-hand, it clicked. We are going to be much more aggressive to push the CARE Act forward.”
As Romano reiterated, “These are American children.” He has documented child labor in 14 countries, and, along with Len Morris, co-directed Stolen Childhoods, the first theatrically released feature documentary on international child labor. “For the most part, the quality of the worst forms of child labor internationally very much reflects what I have seen in throughout the US,” he said. “Agriculture in America is a third world country.”
One issue Romano found most appalling is that US law imposes stricter regulations on the importation of commodities tainted by child labor than on commodities produced in our own country. The Harkin-Engel protocol of 2001, for example, mandates that the cocoa industry must work toward eradicating the worst forms of child labor in Côte d’Ivoire.
And, noted Romano, although the US ratified ILO Convention No.182 (The International Convention Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour) in 1999, the US is clearly not in compliance. Just as we are seeking to protect children internationally, we must also protect the rights of our children here in America and ensure the passage of the CARE Act.
Monique Marie DeJong currently works in Washington, D.C. as the U.S. reporter for London’s Centre for Investigative Journalism, reporting on corporate corruption and human rights and environmental violations. Prior to reporting, she worked for two years as an associate editor for NBC’s TODAY show travel editor in Los Angeles, California.