Advocates force ouster of Uzbek official from Fashion Week over child labor issues

By Reid Maki, Child Labor Coalition Coordinator and NCL Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards

It’s not every day that you get your message through to one of the world’s most notorious dictators, but some of us in the child labor advocacy community think we may have just done that last week during New York City’s Fashion Week.

For several years, the Child Labor Coalition, 28 organizations working to end the labor exploitation of children around the world, has been deeply concerned about the forced use of child labor in Uzbekistan, where Islam Karimov has ruled with an iron fist for 21 years. Each fall, Uzbek school children and their teachers are forced to leave their classrooms and perform arduous hand-harvesting of cotton for up to two months. The children—estimates of their numbers range from several hundred thousand to almost two million—receive little or no pay and often perform this back-breaking work from young childhood and through college. The workers are charged for shelter and food and by the time those expenses are deducted their compensation is so small it would be fair to say they worked for little or no pay or “slave wages.” The profits of this labor tend to flow to Uzbekistan’s ruling elite. Unlike child labor in most countries, Uzbekistan’s occurs as a result of national policy filtered down to local government authorities.

Recently, members of the Cotton Advocacy Network and the Child Labor Coalition, led by the International Labor Rights Forum and other CLC members like the American Federation of Teachers and the Human Rights Watch highlighted this issue by targeting advocacy at Karimov’s daughter Gulnara, who in addition to being Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Spain is a fashion designer who was participating in Fashion Week, where designers from around the world hold shows to reveal their new clothing lines.

Since Gulnara Karimov has bragged about the use of “high quality” Uzbek cotton and is a member of Karimov government, the advocacy community felt that she could fairly be used as an advocacy target.

As ILRF and the Cotton Advocacy Network planned its protest, IMG, Fashion Week’s organizer, washed its hands of Gulnara’s controversial show by cancelling it. Gulnara then moved her fashion show to the stylish Manhattan restaurant Cipriani on 42nd Street for a private show on September 15th. About two dozen of us followed the show to let attendees know about Uzbekistan’s child labor problem. It appears that our efforts scared away Gulnara, who according to media reports, was nowhere to be found.

We shouted things like “Hey, hey, ho, ho—Child Labor’s got to go” and “Uzbek cotton is mighty rotten.” We were joined by several Uzbek nationals, including one who had been forced to work in the fields himself as a child. Another Uzbek man said his daughter is a college student in Uzbekistan and that she is forced to harvest cotton every afternoon. He told a reporter from the Guardian that “it is back-breaking work, very, very hard, and most children have to work from sunrise to sunset every day until the harvest is finished. No weekends, nothing, for two or three months.” One protestor, an American woman from Connecticut, carried a sign that said, “Free Abdul,” who she explained was an Uzbek exchange student that she hosted who has subsequently been jailed by the Karimov regime as a political prisoner. Photos of the rally can be found here.

We handed out hundreds of leaflets and our protest received wide coverage about a dozen journalistic organizations including the New York Post, and Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

Members of the CLC conducted a similar protest outside the Embassy of Uzbekistan in 2009. At that time, some of us wondered if word of the protest would filter up to Karimov. With the ouster of his daughter from Fashion Week, we’re pretty sure Islam Karimov got the news this time.

If you would like clothing retailers to know about your concerns regarding Uzbek cotton, please consider adding your name to this Change.org petition (one of several targeting specific retail chains).

Longoria Lifts Efforts to Protect Child Farmworkers in Washington, D.C.

By Reid Maki, NCL’s Director, Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards

Efforts to protect child farmworkers got a big boost last Thursday, June 16th when the popular actress Eva Longoria helped Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) introduce legislation to extend child labor law protection to agriculture. “The Children’s Act for Responsible Employment,” has been introduced several times over the last decade but garnered increased support in the last Congress when 106 House members joined Roybal-Allard in co-sponsoring the bill.

“Agriculture is the only industry governed by labor laws that allow children as young as 12 to work with virtually no restrictions on the number of hours they spend in the fields outside of the school day,” Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard told attendees at the press conference.  “Tragically, unable to keep up with the competing demands of long work hours in the fields and school, a recent report found that child farmworkers drop out of school at four times the national dropout rate – slamming the door shut on the very pathway that could one day help them escape a lifetime of unrelenting work harvesting our crops.”

“I want to commend Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard for her leadership in Congress on the CARE Act,” said Longoria, one of the stars of ABC’s Desperate Housewives.

Eva Longoria speaking on the plight of the estimated 400,000 migrant farmworker children in the US

When Longoria learned about these working children, she became so concerned she decided to produce a film about child farmworkers: “The Harvest/La Cosecha.”

The film had its D.C. premiere on Capitol Hill later in the day. It focuses on three young farmworkers, ages 12, 14 and 16, who are among the estimated 400,000 children who work as migrant laborers on America’s farms.  As it detailed their day-to-day struggles, the emotional toll of poverty and migration was palpable. Even veteran farmworker advocates found it incredibly moving. Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farmworkers of America with Cesar Chavez found herself wiping away tears as she talked after the film. She said it reminded her of her and Cesar’s young days as farmworkers and organizers.

The teens travel with their families across thousands of miles to pick crops in southern Texas, northern Michigan and northern Florida during the harvest season. Along the way, they face backbreaking labor in 100-degree heat, physical hazards from pesticides, the emotional burden of helping their families through economic crises when work opportunities dry up, separation from their families and peer groups, and dwindling hope for their educational and economic advancement.

The film will be released theatrically in Los Angeles and in New York in July, along with special screenings in 30 cities nationally. Advocates hope the film will bring much needed attention to a problem that is little known by most Americans.

While retaining current exemptions for family farms, the CARE Act would bring age and work hour standards for children in agriculture up to the standards for children working in all other industries. Under CARE, teenagers would be required to be at least 14 years of age to work in agriculture and at least 18 years of age to perform particularly hazardous work. 14 and 15-year-olds would be permitted to work in certain agriculture jobs, as decided by the Department of Labor.

Reid Maki at last Thursday's press conference. 4 out of 5 Americans believe that all children should be protected equally from child labor.

I was among the speakers at the press conference and I pointed out the inconsistencies of U.S law, which does not allow a 12-year-old to work in an air-conditioned office but will allow that same child to work 14 hours in 100-degree heat, performing back-breaking labor in fields treated with pesticides. I feel fortunate to coordinate the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), co-chaired by NCL, which has had protecting child farmworkers as a priority for the last 10 years.

During the press conference, I noted the results of NCL’s new consumer poll on attitudes about child labor in agriculture, which found that 4 out of 5 Americans believe that all children should be protected equally from child labor, no matter the industry they toil in. The poll found that only 3 percent of Americans would let their own children work more than 40 hours per week in the fields—something many 12-year-old migrants do today. Given the public’s concern about child labor, it’s unfathomable that Congress has so far refused to fix this glaring glitch in our child labor laws.

Norma Flores López of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs—also a CLC member—said, “Starting at the young age of 12, I worked in the fields alongside my family. I worked to help my family survive, often until my hands were so swollen that I could not hold a pencil at school. Like thousands of American farmworker children today, I experienced the hazards of child labor in agriculture first hand, which is why I know how important it is to equalize the child labor law by passing the CARE Act.”

Please consider writing or calling your Representative or Senator today and telling them that you protect equal child labor protections for agriculture. Can we afford to sacrifice another generation of farmworker youth?

 

The missing piece

By Ayrianne Parks, Communications Director, Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, and Reid Maki, Coordinator, Child Labor Coalition

This past Sunday, 60 Minutes focused much needed attention on the issue of child labor in U.S. agriculture. The piece, which may have seemed balanced to the average viewer, failed to convey the dangers child farmworkers are exposed to, including toxic pesticides, razor-sharp tools, and the educational harm that they suffer.

The show’s segment called, “The debate on child labor,” focused mostly on agricultural economics from the perspective of a migrant farmworker family and a grower—both struggling to get by. However, this is an issue that existed far before the recession. Farmworkers make an average of $10,000 to $12,000 annually with no benefits. These extremely low wages in farm work, often compel parents to bring their very young children to work in agriculture, an environment most—including the father interviewed—hope their children will have the opportunity to escape in adulthood to pursue their dreams. The grower interviewed pointed out that Americans want cheap produce and that comes at a price paid by the sweat and toil of laborers.

Byron Pitts, who reported on the issue, also interviewed Norma Flores López, AFOP’s Children in the Fields Campaign Program Director and Domestic Issues Chair of the Child Labor Coalition. Several months ago, when 60 Minutes filmed its interview of Flores López, a former migrant farmworker child herself, she spoke in detail about the educational and health consequences of child labor. While most of her concerns did not make it into the show, 60 Minutes did post some of her comments on their Web site, but it is likely few Americans will see them. The average viewer who watched the show will come away with the impression that plucky farmworker kids will survive their years of child labor without suffering many negative consequences. Some do, most do not.

When Byron Pitts asked a large group of farmworker kids how many of them planned to go to college, each of them raised a hand. Having worked in the same South Texas fields as the kids, Norma Flores López knows well that few migrant kids are able to overcome the exhaustion of working 10-14 hours days or the obstacles that accompany missing school and changing schools, because their family is constantly migrating.

The sad truth is that most migrant kids do not even make it through high school. Federal data on this is horrible, but if you talk to migrant educators they will tell you that the dropout rate in many migrant communities ranges from 50 to 80 percent.

Farmworker children pay a high price, often sacrificing their education and health, for the very little amount they actually earn by working in the fields. We are thankful to 60 Minutes for helping bring attention to the very real problem of child labor in America and we hope that those who watched the piece will continue to educate themselves, their families, friends, and communities on the inequity of U.S. child labor law which—for reasons that are unclear to many of us—allows impoverished Latino children to sacrifice their futures for what often amounts to subminimum wages. For more information on child labor in the U.S. please visit www.afop.org or www.stopchildlabor.org.

Moin Kahn’s Tragic Death May Help other children in India

By Reid Maki, Child Labor Coalition Coordinator, National Consumers League

Moin Khan isn’t a name known by most Americans, but it should be.

Moin Khan went to work in New Delhi at age seven—one of several million child laborers working in India (estimates by advocacy groups of the number ofchildren working in India range from 44 million to 100 million, according to the U.S. Department of Labor).

Moin’s case stands out though because he had a particularly brutal employer—his uncle, Kalimullah Khan —allegedly beat him to death with a blunt weapon on April 16 because the boy was working too slow.
Moin was only 10 when he was murdered.

Three years earlier, the Moin left his home on a train and traveled to New Delhi, about 300 miles away, in a deal arranged between the uncle and the boy’s grandfather. For the last three years of his life—for the rest of his life– Moin did not see his parents. He worked tirelessly, rolling bidis or beedes—thin cigarettes popular in India. Imagine a seven-year-old bent over 14 hours a day working feverishly at a repetitive task and you may start to sense what Moin’s new life was like. But the reality was even worse than you might imagine.

“Kalim was a really bad man. He beat up all of us if we made the smallest of mistakes. His punishments were severe,” said a seven-year-old boy rescued when Khan was arrested.

“He would put hot iron rods into our pants or he would hang us upside down from the fan or even throw us hard on the floor,” added the boy, one of five children who worked in the factory. “We were not allowed to go out or talk to anyone.”

On the day he killed his nephew, Kalimullah Khan beat all five children he “employed,” including Moin’s brother who is mute. Employed is in quotes because many child laborers in India do not get paid. Many are, in fact, slaves.

The sad details of Moin’s life were only discovered because a mortician noticed horrible bruises all over the young boy’s body and called authorities.

One wonders how many more children are being abused like Moin.

In the wake of Moin’s death, vigils have been held in New Delhi and a bright light has shown on exploitative child labor which is technically illegal in India. To improve enforcement, authorities just announced that they will be adding a hotline in New Delhi. India also banned child labor in circuses last month.

The public and officials in India are increasingly aware of child labor horrors. Moin Kahn did not intend to make his tragic death stand for something, but it has.

Readers interested in child labor should visit the web site of the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), which is co-chaired by the National Consumers League and the American Federation of Teachers. News from the CLC may also be followed under the Twitter name ChildLABRcoaltn.

Hearing examines bill to help teen sex trafficking victims

By Reid Maki, Coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition

It started with an innocuous trip to the mall. A woman in her late 20s approached Natasha, a pretty 19-year-old-teenager, and suggested that she consider a job as a make-up artist. The job involved good money and travel. Natasha was interested. She wasn’t sure she was ready for college, so she figured she’d check out the opportunity. Natasha went to high-rise office building in San Francisco to see the company first hand. There were young people everywhere learning how to apply make-up. Everything looked legitimate. Everyone she met was nice. She went home and convinced her parents, who despite deep reservations, to let her take the job.

On her first day, she was having lunch with her new bosses and she began to feel that something was wrong. The feeling grew. She excused herself to go to the bathroom and made a beeline for her car. When she got to it, one of the bosses grabbed her and kidnapped her.

The next year of Natasha’s life was a living hell. The make-up job was a ruse for a prostitution ring. On one of her first days, her pimp drove her to the school that her little brother attended and told her if she wasn’t compliant—if she ever tried to leave—they would kill the boy. The young girl felt completely trapped.

Natasha—now known as Natasha Herzig—told her compelling story before a packed briefing room in the U.S. House of Representatives on March 16. The briefing’s purpose was to bring attention to the problem of sex trafficking in the U.S. and to garner support for a bill, the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act (see summary), reintroduced by Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas).

The bill, S. 596, would aid victims of sex trafficking and prosecute sex traffickers who exploit underage girls and force them into prostitution. The legislation calls for setting up a six-state pilot program to help law enforcement agencies go after pimps and traffickers. It would also create shelters, provide treatment, counseling and legal assistance for the victims. The legislation passed the Senate and House of Representatives but in a nip-and-tuck-race was not enacted before the congressional session ended. Senator and Senator Cornyn said they are determined to see it pass in the current session. The companion bill will soon be introduced in the House of Representatives.

According to estimates by the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an estimated 100,000 minors—girls and boys—are trafficked in the U.S. each year for sexual purposes. Not all victims are lured away from happy homes like Natasha, who was an honor roll student in an upper-middle class home. Many are runaways who flee dysfunctional homes, thinking the streets will be more tolerable. Some of these children are fleeing sexual predators in their own families.

Academy Award-winning actress and advocate Mira Sorvino urged Americans and law enforcement officials to see this issue in its true light. “All teen prostitution is trafficking,” she said. Yet, she explained, in many localities, “police are still arresting the victims.”

Sorvino noted that when an adult has sex with a minor they may be sentenced to years in jail, but if money is involved, the buyers of sex typically do no jail time. They might face a small fine or be ordered to take a sensitivity workshop. The consequences need to be much tougher, argued Sorvino.

Often the police and male clients tend to think of prostitution as a victimless crime, but many of the trafficked girls are minors who did not enter prostitution willingly or were manipulated into it. The reality is that the young prostitutes have often been broken down psychologically by rapes, beatings, and threats and are not consensual sex partners, suggested Sorvino. The traffickers, she explained, “know exactly what to say” to manipulate the young girls, many of whom are as young as 12 and 13, into the business. She said they are adept at figuring out what the young girls’ hopes and dreams are and appealing to those aspirations.

The young girls are also broken down psychologically—essentially brainwashed. “There comes a point where you become what you know and you are loyal to your trafficker,” noted Natasha. “The brainwashing is a very tricky thing.”

Sorvino also said that the country’s broken foster care system is contributing to the trafficking problem. Too many children are being beaten and sexually abused and feel compelled to hit the streets. Each year, about 1.7 million runaways or “throwaways” leave their homes for the uncertainty of life on the streets. Both Senator Wyden and Sorvino noted the importance of changing the way the public views this issue.

Ernie Allen, the co-founder of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, noted that the sexualization of children in America at “younger and younger ages” is a large part of the problem. “We have created compliant victims who think this is how they are supposed to act,” he noted. “We have got to attack demand,” said Allen, who explained that the fundamental problem is that too many adults want to have sex with kids. “It’s time to address real societal change.”

Sorvino praised the “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” Campaign recently launched by fellow actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. The campaign hopes to reduce the demand for sexual services from minors.

Sorvino also noted that the Internet is making it much too easy for prostitution to flourish and “has to be addressed.”

Ernie Allen agreed that the Internet is a big part of the problem. He noted the successful effort to get the Internet site Craig’s List to stop selling sex ads, but other sites are still doing business, he said.

The amount of money that can be made from sex trafficking is enormous. Senator Wyden noted that criminals who used to traffick drugs and engage in other criminal activities are moving over to sex trafficking because it’s easier. Allen explained that much of the trafficking of teen prostitutes is “organized crime” with traffickers moving teens from city to city to meet demand.

Natasha escaped from her trafficker 10 years ago. A friend and fellow underage prostitute was being beaten so severely that Natasha feared the friend would die. She ended up calling a friend for help. Eventually the authorities became involved and Natasha was free. However, the psychological trauma she suffered continued to haunt her for years. “I had a very long and dark journey to get to where I am today.”

Natasha is now happily married with a child. She works as a victims’ rights advocate and law enforcement trainer. The lack of resources 10 years ago made it very difficult for girls like her to escape their sexual slavery, and she wants to help young girls and women avoid what she went through. She urged the briefing audience attendees to “please, please fight for this [bill].”

Doug Justus, a 29-year-veteran of the Portland, Oregon police force and the former head of Portland’s Police Bureau’s vice unit, noted that when he first started working on criminal cases involving the trafficking of teens, prosecutors would not take his cases. They saw prostitution as a victimless crime that the public did not care about. Justus participated in trafficking sensitivity training through the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which trained nearly 300,000 law enforcement officials, and it completely changed his outlook.

In the past, he had driven by teenage prostitutes without really understanding their plight. Now, he knew the young girls should be viewed as victims. He was then able to convince other law enforcement officers and district attorneys to go through similar training. Portland began prosecuting traffickers. Still, he noted, trafficking cases are enormously difficult to prosecute. He told the story of one 13-year-old girl, Emily, who was nearly beaten to death by her pimp. Justus eventually convinced Emily to testify. After her testimony, she vanished and Justus said that informants have said Emily was murdered by her trafficker. The job is the hardest he ever had as a policeman, said Justus. “It kills you—you can’t sleep at night,” he explained.

The lack of “safe houses” is a particular problem, said Justus, who noted that when Emily was first rescued after being beaten there was no where for her to go. She was eventually released and then beaten by another pimp. “It didn’t have to happen if we had a safe house,” noted Justus. “If we had a safe house, Emily would be alive today.”

Tina Frundt, a former teen trafficking victim, told hearing attendees that she escaped from her trafficker after he beat her and broke her arm. The police arrested her and put her in jail for a year.

Frundt had been adopted into a loving family at age 12, but a pedophile stalked her and helped her run away from her parents after an argument. By the time she was 13, she was working as a stripper and working as a prostitute at truck stops—although working is certainly not the right word because she wasn’t getting paid and she was routinely being victimized by adults.

There were few if any resources to help Frundt escape. Eventually, she decided that she had to help other young girls avoid being trafficked. Today, she operates Courtney’s House, a Washington, DC area shelter for victims, that has helped over 500 young people escape their traffickers and pimps. She also operates a hotline (888-261-3665), and she and her staff hit the streets between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. to talk to runaways and prostitutes and let them know that there is an alternative.

Frundt noted that while most victims are women and are often trafficked at ages 11 and 12, boys are trafficked too. Most male victims, she said, are first trafficked at ages six to nine years old.

Members of the public interested in helping to pass S. 596 should call or write their Senators and urge them to sponsor the bill. Readers may also sign an online petition to support the legislation at Change.org.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) introduced a companion bill in the House of Representatives during the last congressional session and are expected to re-introduce in this session as well. According to the Polaris Project, 45 states—including Ohio this year—have criminalized sex and labor trafficking. The Massachusetts legislature is working on a trafficking bill. The Georgia State House of Representatives recently passed a sex trafficking bill. Minnesota is also considering a “Safe Harbor” bill that assists the victims of sexual trafficking. And the Hawaiian legislature is deliberating a bill as well.

If you know a child who is missing or in danger of exploitation, please call the 24-hour hotline for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).

Kudos to Wash Post for exposing troubling farmworker kids’ stories

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Sunday’s Washington Post featured a compelling – and sad – story that reaffirms NCL’s concerns about farmworker kids. In “A Harvest of Reduced Expectations,” by reporter Kevin Sieff, the youngsters interviewed describe constantly moving from town to town during the school year – following their farmworker parents, showing up at new schools in the middle of the year, and failing to enjoy any continuity in their education. As a result, many drop out.

One teenage girl talked about living in farmworker’s quarters, which are typically run down and lacking in the niceties so many of today’s teens take for granted – a good bed, a desk on which to do homework, regular hours for meals and bedtimes. One boy is pictured sitting on his bed reading over his homework; he has no desk and lives in a threadbare makeshift living quarters.

But most troubling in the teenage girl’s story is that though she is glad to be able to be with her father and take care of her siblings, she is often surrounded by farmworkers who are NOT there with their wives and families. During the weekends many of these men bring prostitutes back to the quarters where these children live.

Reid Maki at NCL has worked tirelessly with the other members of the Child Labor Coalition, which NCL co-chairs, to gain passage of the CARE Act, which will help to get farmworker kids out of the fields and in school full-time. This Washington Post article is particularly well headlined: A Harvest of Reduced Expectations; the piece does a great job of shining a light on the substandard and unacceptable living conditions of so many farmworkers – and their kids. Let’s pass CARE and get these kids into schools where they will be learning on a continuous basis and not exposed to a world that is hardly fit for adults, let alone children.

Longoria, Colbert highlight farmworker plight

By Reid Maki, Coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition and Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards

America’s farmworkers are mostly invisible these days. The men, women, and children who pick our fruit and vegetables go largely ignored by the public and Congress, which has failed to update the Fair Labor Standards Act leaving farmworkers mostly unprotected from workplace abuses. This September, however, two celebrities—Eva Longoria and Stephen Colbert—traveled to Capitol Hill in an effort to shine a much-needed spotlight on the plight of farmworkers.

On September 15, Longoria, a cast member from the television hit “Desperate Housewives,” appeared at an informal briefing in the Rayburn House Office Building to promote “The Harvest”, a documentary she is producing about child labor in agriculture. Longoria and filmmaker Robin Romano showed clips of child workers featured in the film, which will premier at the Sundance Film Festival. The Harvest follows kids as they migrate and perform back-breaking work that many adults will not do because it is too hard and the pay is too low.

Despite being “a long time advocate for farmworkers,” Longoria said she was unaware that hundreds of thousands of children toiled in America’s fields because of loopholes in our country’s child labor laws. She noted that the educational impact on farmworker kids is profound: two out of three migrant students do not graduate high school. The high drop out rate, she added, contributes to a cycle of poverty that grips the farmworker community. Children are faced with the dilemma of providing needed family income or pursuing their educational needs. “No child should have to make that decision,” Longoria said, urging the briefing attendees to support H.R. 3564, the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment or CARE, legislation that would extend labor protections to farmworker kids.

The bill’s author, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), told attendees that passing CARE “would be a great step forward in protecting children.”

On September 24th, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship & Border Security’s hearing on “Protecting America’s Harvest,” addressed attempts to ensure that there are enough workers to harvest crops. TV humorist Stephen Colbert was one of the “expert” witnesses based on his recent experience as a farmworker. His testimony was pure satire that would have made H.L. Mencken smile: “Congresswoman Lofgren has asked me to share my vast experience spending one day as a migrant farmworker.”

“I’m happy to use my celebrity to draw attention to this important, complicated issue and I certainly hope that my star power can bump this hearing all the way up to CSPAN 1,” Colbert told a crowded hearing room.

“As you’ve heard this morning, America’s farms are far too dependent upon immigrant labor to pick its fruits and vegetables. Now, the obvious answer is for all of us to stop eating fruits and vegetables. And if you look at recent obesity statistics you can see that many Americans have already started.”

“I reject this idea that farm work is among the semi-mythical jobs that Americans won’t do…Really, no Americans? I did, as part of my ongoing series—“Stephen Colbert’s Fall Back Position” — where I try other jobs and realize that mine is way better. I participated in the UFW’s “Take Our Jobs” campaign. One of only 16 people in Americans to take up the challenge, although that number may increase in the near future as I understand many democrats may be looking for work come November,” quipped Colbert.

“I’ll admit I started my work day with preconceived notions of migrant labor, but after working with these men and women, picking beans, packing corn for hours on end, side by side in the unforgiving sun, I’d have to say—and I do mean this sincerely—please don’t make me do this again. It is really, really hard.”

“For one thing, when you’re picking beans you have to spend all day bending over. It turns out—and I did not know this— most soil is at ground level. If we can put a man on the moon why can’t we make the earth waist high?” asked Colbert in exaggerated mock pain.

The subcommittee also heard testimony from Arturo Rodriguez, the president of the United Farm Workers, who told members of Congress that “most of the food on your table has been harvested and cared for by unauthorized workers.”

“There’s another indisputable fact. The life of a U.S. farmworker in 2010 is not an easy one: most farmworkers live in poverty, endure poor working conditions, and receive no government assistance,” said Rodriguez.

“Undocumented farmworkers take jobs that other Americans won’t do, for pay that other Americans won’t accept, and under conditions other American won’t tolerate,” said Rodriguez, who urged Congress to support the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, or “AgJOBS” bill, which would allow undocumented farmworkers already here in the U.S. to earn legal status by continuing to work in agriculture. “It is time to acknowledge the dignity of the current farm labor workforce and ensure the safety and abundance of America’s food supply by passing the AgJOBS bill. A failure to do so would be both a human and economic tragedy,” said Rodriguez.

Congress should take action, Colbert suggested. “This brief experience gave me some small understanding of why so few Americans are clamoring to begin a career as seasonal migrant field worker. So what’s the answer?” he asked. “I’m a free market guy. Normally I would leave this to the invisible hand of the market but the invisible hand of the market has already moved over 84,000 acres of production and over 22,000 farm jobs to Mexico and shut down over a million acres of U.S. farm land due to lack available labor because apparently even the invisible hand doesn’t want to pick beans.”

“Maybe this AgJOBS bill would help. I don’t know. Like most members of Congress I haven’t read it,” quipped Colbert, who suggested that offering more visas to immigrant laborers might help. “This improved legal status might allow immigrants recourse if they are abused.”

“It just stands to reason to me,” explained Colbert, “that if your coworker can’t be exploited then you’re less likely to be exploited yourself, and that itself might improve pay and working conditions on these farms and eventually Americans may consider taking these jobs again.”

“The point is we have to do something, because I am not going back out there,” said a horrified Colbert. “At this point, I break into a cold sweat at the sight of a salad bar.”

Colbert couldn’t help giving Congress one last tweak as he ended his testimony: “I trust that following my testimony both sides will work together on this issue in the best interest of the American people as you always do.” The packed hearing room laughed loudly at Colbert’s reference to the increasing lack of bipartisanship in the current Congress.

Not everyone seemed amused by having a humorist on a congressional panel. The Subcommittee’s ranking minority member Steve King (R-Iowa) sat unsmiling through the satiric Colbert testimony and during questioning suggested that film footage of Colbert working on a farm was “staged.” King later said it was insulting to suggest that American workers do not want to do farm work.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the chair of the full Judiciary Committee, suggested that Colbert leave the hearing during the Q and A so that members could get down to business. He was politely “overruled” by Subcommittee chair Zoe Lofgren (D- Calif.), who said that Americans are interested in Colbert’s views.

Subcommittee members asked Colbert questions about the conditions he encountered in his brief time in the fields. “It was very hot,” said Colbert. “It was hotter than I like to be….It’s not a job I want to do and not a lot of people took Mr. Rodriguez up on his offer….[statistics] seems to say that Americans don’t want to take these jobs, but I don’t want to say definitively that they won’t.

Colbert turned a bit serious when Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) asked him why he chose to take a stand on the working conditions endured by farmworkers when there are so many issues to weigh in on. “I like talking about people who don’t have any power and this seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States—our migrant workers who come and do our work but who don’t have any rights…Yet we still invite them to come here and at the same time ask them to leave. That’s an interesting contradiction to me.”

View all of Colbert’s testimony on YouTube here and here.

‘Strike’ one up for the ‘Little Guy’: company abandons plans to cut salaries and benefits at Mott’s plant

By Reid Maki, Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards

After a four-month strike, 300-plus workers at the Mott’s applesauce plant in Williamson, New York, have won their battle and have avoided pay and benefit cuts the conglomerate that owns the plant was trying to cram down their throats despite earning huge profits last year.

In addition to Mott’s, Dr Pepper, and Snapple, Dr Pepper Snapple Group makes Sunkist soda, 7UP, A&W, Canada Dry, Crush, Squirt, Hawaiian Punch, Penafiel, Clamato, Schweppes, and Venom Energy.

According to the  New York Times, Dr Pepper Snapple Group–despite profits of over a half billion dollars in 2009–tried to slash workers’ wages $1.50 an hour because it felt that the facility’s pay was too high for the area, which is economically depressed after years of layoffs from firms like Kodak and Xerox.

“It used to be that corporations…moaned about how bad they were doing when they demanded givebacks. Now they don’t bother. ‘We’re doing great, we admit it…but we want more, more, more,’” said one observer.

In addition to the wage cut, the company wanted to eliminate pensions for future workers, freeze pensions for current workers, decrease its contributions to the 401 K plan, and increase employee contributions toward health care premiums and co-pays.

Hopefully, the workers’ “victory,” extensive media coverage it garnered, and the strong support the workers received from New York’s congressional delegation (29 members of which asked the company to return to the negotiating table) will serve as a signal to corporations that they should think twice before they cut workers’ wages and benefits while they are generating huge profits.

To add insult to injury, Larry Young, the CEO of Dr Pepper Snapple Group, made $6.5 million last year, and he’s averaged nearly 30 percent raises for each of the last three years. By contrast, veteran plant workers earned less than $40,000 a year without overtime.

It’s a sad comment on the current state of labor relations that a contract for level pay is considered a victory. We think the Mott’s workers deserved a raise and a share of the parent company’s success. At least the company’s arrogant and insulting attempt to drive down wages was beaten back.

Effort to pass legislation to protect farmworker children gathers steam

by Reid Maki, Child Labor Coalition

This post originally ran in Media Voices for Children, an Internet news agency for children’s rights.

In November, I reminded folks that young children—children who are 12- and 13-years-old and even younger in some cases—harvest fruits and vegetables on many U.S. farms and that many of them are allowed to do so because of loopholes in U.S. child labor law that go back to the 1930s. Child advocates have been trying to close those loopholes for years, and today, I’m happy to report that the campaign is progressing well.

Last week, Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO) became the 68th member of Congress to cosponsor the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE), HR 3564, which would close the legal loopholes and apply the same child labor laws to all working children. The bill, introduced by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) in September, would preserve an exemption for family farmers so their children could help on the farm, but the children of migrant and seasonal farmworkers who work for wages would have to wait till they are at least 14 to work. The U.S. Department of Labor would evaluate the safety of agricultural jobs to determine if some can be performed by 14- and 15-year-olds. The CARE Act would also prohibit teens in agriculture from doing jobs recognized as very dangerous until they were 18—the age limit in all other industries.

Campaign organizers, including the 24 members of the Child Labor Coalition, the American Federation of Teachers, the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, Human Rights Watch, and First Focus Campaign for Children, are pleased that members of Congress from states with large farmworker communities have embraced the bill. Twenty members of the California delegation have cosponsored CARE. Texas, another state that is home to many migrant farmworkers, boasts seven members who have co-sponsored the bill. The Progressive Caucus has been incredibly supportive with 43 members co-sponsoring the legislation.

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