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.
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.
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?