By Reid Maki, Coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition
Our effort to protect migrant farmworker children from potentially harmful child labor through the Children in the Fields Campaign continues to gather steam. A campaign highlight occurred two weeks ago on February 22, when the Congressional Labor and Working Families Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus hosted a briefing on the hidden problem of child labor in U.S. agriculture. The room was packed with about 50 congressional staffers, interns, human rights advocates, and federal officials who work to protect farmworkers.
Norma Flores, who is now a Children in the Fields Campaign organizer, told the audience that she formally began working for wages in agriculture when she was 12, but that she helped out her migrant family in the fields when she was even younger. She spoke about working in 100-degree heat and working with sharp scissors that were so rough on her hands that she couldn’t write when she returned to school. She spoke about the lack of sanitation–days when toilets were not available or located too far away for the workers to use and days when clean water was not available to drink. She also talked about her scariest day in the fields when a plane spraying pesticides flew over the crew and dropped the pesticide spray directly on them. “My dad…was freaking out. He told us to run,” said Lopez.
Flores said she often migrated before the school year was over and returned to Texas months after it started up again. Many migrant children, she noted, end up dropping out from school due to the fatigue associated with migrating and working in the fields.
Maria Mandujano, who is now a college student and one of the lucky ones who managed to make it through school to graduation, told attendees that she started working in the fields when she was only 11, helping to harvest onions, sugar beets, corn, and zucchini. She recalled 13-hour shifts in 98-100-degree heat and said the work has left her with a bad back. “It is wrong that farmworker youth are the only youth exempted from U.S. child labor laws,” said Maria. “I hope that Congress will act to protect others like me.”
Zama Coursen-Neff, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told briefing attendees that she has found a great deal of evidence that child farmworkers continue to work under very difficult circumstances that leaves her wondering whether the United States is in compliance with Convention 182, the international agreement signed by the U.S. that prohibits the “worst forms” of child labor that endangers the health, safety, and morals of children. Inaccessibility to good drinking water, pesticide contamination, exposure to hazardous jobs at young ages, and the sexual harassment of young female workers were among the problems she said young workers told her about. She interviewed child workers who work seven days a week for less than $150, she said. “I’ve seen kids working barefoot and without gloves,” she added. “Some kids are too tired to change their clothes at the end of the day.”
Coursen-Neff said she also believes that U.S. child labor laws are discriminatory because the exemptions that allow children to work at 12 and younger in agriculture primarily impact Latino children. She reminded participants that for many farmworker children, farm work is a way of life and not a temporary farm job that older Americans tend to remember fondly as a part of their youth. “One mother told me that she felt she had stolen her 11-year-old daughter’s childhood,” she said.
Filmmaker Robin Romano showed a trailer for his upcoming film on child farmworkers called “The Harvest.” He told attendees that the agricultural exemptions reminded him of “Jim Crow” laws, arguing that the treatment of migrant kids is “separate and unequal.” He agreed with Coursen-Neff’s assessment that the United States is not in compliance with Convention 182 and he said that the attempts to deal with abusive child labor in African cocoa fields under the Harkin-Engel protocol “require stricter rules than we have.”
“This is stunning to me,” Romano added. He noted that most of the migrant child workers he met were born in the U.S. “These are American citizens….Our children deserve better from us.”
Please consider calling your Congressman and urging them to cosponsor The Children’s Act for Responsible Employment, HR 3564. Email Reid Maki at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.