The Child Labor Coalition Holds a Press Conference on the Proposed Protections (Hazardous Orders) for Children Employed in Agriculture

Washington, D.C. (PRWEB) April 19, 2012

Quote start“As doctors well know, children are not little adults. Their bodies are structured fundamentally differently, leaving them uniquely vulnerable to a number of different hazards.”
Dr. Sammy Almashat, Public Citizen.Quote end

Today, the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) held a press conference to dispel some of the misinformation surrounding the Department of Labor’s recently proposed safety updates to the rules governing child labor in agriculture. The updates would be the first change in 41 years. A panel of experts from the advocacy, education, health and agriculture communities discussed the rules’ potential impact on children’s health and safety. Testimony was also shared by Catherine Rylatt, the aunt of Alex Pacas, a young man who was killed in the 2010 grain engulfment that killed 14-year-old Wyatt Whitebread.

Ms. Rylatt recounted the details shared with her by a friend of her nephew who survived. She said that as the boys were working to break up the corn, “Wyatt started sinking; he was yelling ‘Help me, help me!’” His young coworkers tried to save him. Alex, her nephew, lost his life as well. She went on to note that after the tragedy, “Chris, the 15-year-old who witnessed the death of his 14-year-old friend, kept saying ‘I should have stayed; I should have stayed and helped.’ He doesn’t understand if he had stayed, he would have been dead, too.”

Other experts who provided insight on the proposed updates, included: Lorretta Johnson, Co-Chair of the CLC and Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT); Norma Flores López, Chair of the CLC’s Committee on Domestic Issues and Director of the Children in the Fields Campaign at the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), and a former child farmworker; Dr. Sammy Almashat, M.D., M.P.H., Research Associate at Public Citizen; and Bruce Lesley, President of First Focus, a national children’s advocacy organization.

“The American Federation of Teachers believes that it is our responsibility to educate the ‘whole child,’” said Ms. Johnson, who opened the press conference. “This means looking after the well-being of our children, in and out of the classroom. The updates proposed by the Department of Labor are common sense changes that are designed to preserve the safety of children who work on America’s farms.” That sentiment was echoed throughout the press conference.

“As a child working in the fields, I was exposed to dangerous pesticides and machinery. While I was fortunate not to be seriously injured while working, that is not the case for many,” said Ms. Flores López. “That also doesn’t mean I’m in the clear. As a farmworker advocate, I know there are many other serious long-term health consequences associated with pesticides that may affect me in the future.”

Each of the speakers discussed the hazardous orders from their respective areas of expertise. Agriculture, which is consistently ranked as one of the three most dangerous industries for all workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is especially perilous for children. In 2010, three-quarters of the children under age 16 who died while working for wages were killed while working on farms.

“From a medical perspective, we know that children are more vulnerable than adults to the myriad hazards encountered on a farm. A child’s mental capacity and judgment is not as fully developed as it is in an adult,” said Dr. Almashat. “As doctors well know, children are not little adults. Their bodies are structured fundamentally differently, leaving them uniquely vulnerable to a number of different hazards.”

The agribusiness and the farm lobby have voiced strong opposition to the protections, resulting in Members of Congress introducing legislation in the House and Senate to block the implementation of the protections. The bills, called “Preserving America’s Family Farm Act,” are not supported by all in the agriculture community though. In a press release the National Farmers Union, while not comfortable with all aspects of the proposed rules, has voiced support for the Secretary’s efforts to better protect farmworker children. At the end of the press conference,National Consumers League Executive Director and CLC Co-Chair Sally Greenberg read a statement prepared by Bryce Oates, a grower from Missouri who recently authored a post with a fellow family farmer Jake Davis, expressing disgust over the untruths being spread about the rules in Footprint Magazine.

“The longer we wait to finalize these protections, the longer kids’ lives are in danger. Children’s safety and well-being must be the number one priority,” said Mr. Lesley. “As children’s advocates, we can accept nothing less.”

About the Child Labor Coalition
The Child Labor Coalition is composed of 28 organizations, representing consumers, labor unions, educators, human rights and labor rights groups, child advocacy groups, and religious and women’s groups. It was established in 1989, and is co-chaired by the National Consumers League and the American Federation of Teachers. Its mission is to protect working youth and to promote legislation, programs, and initiatives to end child labor exploitation in the United States and abroad. A list of the CLC members may be found at http://www.stopchildlabor.org.

About the Children in the Fields Campaign:
The Children in the Fields Campaign is a project of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), a national federation of non-profit and public agencies that provide job training and services for America’s farmworkers. The campaign strives to improve the quality of life of migrant and seasonal farmworker children by advocating for enhanced educational opportunities and the elimination of discriminatory federal child labor laws in agriculture. For additional comment or interview from an AFOP expert, please contact Ayrianne Parks at 202.579.7445 or Parks(at)AFOP(dot)org.

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By Julia Perez

In 2008, I started my personal journey to change the child labor law exemptions in agriculture. I still don’t understand politics, but as an engineer I do recognize trends. The opposition’s mode is not to rally, march, and protest. The people and organizations who want to keep the status quo in agriculture, including keeping someone else’s kids working, fight quietly behind the scenes. They use lawyers, keep the message simple, and they use the political system effectively. They are united; they have funds and political power. Do our kids have a chance for equal representation against those seeking to keep them in the bonds of poverty?

Recall that in 2009 the Department of Labor (DOL) overturned the Bush-Chao legislation signed before leaving office which allowed farmers to pay less than minimum wage to H2-A guest workers brought over to harvest. The North Carolina Growers Association and American Farm Bureau Federation then sued the Department of Labor. My first thought was, they have money for lawyers, but not to pay properly?

Farmworker housing in North Carolina (© Julia Perez 2010)

In September 2011, the DOL proposed some Hazardous Orders to protect hired youth on farms. I naively wrote to Hilda Solis asking her to tackle more. Meanwhile, the Farm Bureau and others took to the media with a simple statement: the parental exemption didn’t recognize corporations as parents, and many family farms were limited liability corporations. Many submitted nostalgic comments to the DOL about working for their parents, and the importance of the 4-H programs for caring for animals. I wonder if they offer any training on how to treat workers, because we are treated like animals, maybe worse. The box-like living conditions are fit for animals, but some animals receive medical care, unlike the hired help.

Before the year’s end a multitude of both Congressmen and Senators wrote to the DOL stating essentially that corporations are parents and the orders were unnecessary. The DOL compromised by offering another opportunity for comments on the parental exemption. This wasn’t sufficient. In March 2012 a bill was introduced with a heartrending name, Preserving America’s Family Farms Act [S. 2221 and H.R. 4157]. The two page bill defends the importance of children helping on family farms but doesn’t address the injuries, fatalities and the fact that hired help are treated differently than relatives. In a brief final sentence the bill seeks to block the DOL – period. This bill prevents the Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, from pulling a Bush-Chao when she leaves office.

“The Secretary of Labor shall not finalize or enforce the proposed rule entitled “Child Labor Regulations, Orders and Statements of Interpretation; Child Labor Violations-..”

The bill was introduced in both the House and Senate. I feel confident this bill will leave committee. Why? Because the sub-committee on Workforce Protections is now chaired by Tim Walberg of Michigan. On his website he states the following:

Ensure Steady Labor Supply
We also need to retain a steady labor supply for our farms, and I am working to ensure there is adequate farm labor to pick American crops. As Chairman of the Workforce Protections subcommittee, I called a hearing in September 2011 to address workforce challenges facing the agricultural industry.
Prevent Undue Regulations
-Working to prevent the implementation of a Department of Labor (DOL) rule that would prohibit youths from working on farms by sending a December 2011 letter to DOL Secretary Solis expressing my dismay at attempts to hinder family farms.

If one reads between the lines, one could infer they are counting on a new president. Why wouldn’t President Obama support his appointed Secretary of Labor? Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney misleadingly said that the Obama administration is telling farmers what they can and can’t do with their kids on a family farm. Is it safe to assume Romney would sign the bill?

After four years, I recognize the trends but still don’t know how to play the game of politics. My recent request to discuss laboring children with my state senator, John McCain, was politely declined. I later learned Senator McCain has signed on as a co-sponsor of S.2221. I’d like to tackle this issue in court but my attempts to find legal representation have failed.

Despite these trends, I’m less frustrated, because I understand that the power of one isn’t enough – it does take a village. Working on The Harvest documentary with director and human rights advocate U. Roberto Romano gave me a sense of contribution and community. We, the community who seek to protect children, can use our voices collectively. We won’t be swayed with spoon-fed one-liners and we don’t have to take to the streets. Let the DOL know we support the proposed rules. Sign a petition:
http://www.change.org/petitions/u-s-dol-child-safety-rules-for-hazardous-work-on-farms-will-save-lives-we-need-them-now

Let’s write to the Senators and Congressmen who co-sponsored the Preserving America’s Family Farm bill and let them know we, the hired help, vote and deserve equal protection for our children.

The full list for the Senate and House is available at:
http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/s2221

or http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr4157

Julia Perez is an electrical engineer and writer. She is currently writing Among the Forgotten, which describes the behind-the-scenes challenges of filming The Harvest/La Cosecha.

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13-year-old American migrant worker cuts onions in Texas instead of going to school

WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT

Farm Lobby Attempts to Block Safety Rules for Children Working in Agriculture
Agriculture continues to be the most dangerous industry for children to work in. Three-quarters of the children who died while working for wages last year were killed while working on farms. Even after seeing horrible injuries and deaths time and again, the farm lobby is insistent children as young as 12 should continue to be allowed to work in hazardous conditions.

The Department of Labor recently proposed safety updates to the rules—the first change in 41 years. The update makes common sense changes to protect farmworker children from known hazards. Children would still be allowed to perform any type of task on their parents’ farm at any age, but the farm lobby is working to have the safety rules thrown out.

SIGN NOW and tell the DOL to stand firm and implement the occupational child safety rules today to prevent the unnecessary injury and death of more children.

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Get ready for the 13th annual week of action to raise awareness about farmworker issues on our campuses and in our communities!

Why do we need farmworker awareness week?  If you eat food, then your life is affected by farmworkers – 85% of our fruits and vegetables are handpicked.  And many of those farmworkers are children like Zulema, Perla, and Victor.  Instead of going to school and playing with their friends, they are working in the most dangerous occupation available for children.  Agriculture is treated differently under the law and these children have been made separate and unequal.

What can you do?
Most people don’t even know that child labor is still legal in the US and that agriculture still relies on farmworkers manual labor and not machines so the first step is raising awareness about the issues faced by farmworkers and their families.
Host a screening of The Harvest/La Cosecha on your campus or in your community so that people can see what the conditions are and how people’s lives are affected.  For more information on getting the public screening rights visit: http://store.cinemalibrestore.com/ppr-harvest-uni.html

Here are a few more ideas of how you can take action:

  • Invite a panel of farmworkers and/or labor experts to speak at the screening. Contact a local farmworker union or community organization.
  • Organize a teach-in or presentation about farmworker issues.
  • Write letters to the editor to raise awareness among the general public.
  • Collect Photo Postcards- Take a photo of yourself holding up a sign that states why you support farmworkers with your name, city, and state and post it to The Harvest Facebook page.
  • Contact Congress and let them know you think this is an important issue.
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By Naomi Hernandez

Trader Joe’s has become the latest chain to sign a Fair Food Agreement with the Coalition of Immolakee Workers after over a year of intense pressure including online campaigns and protests against “Traitor” Joe’s.

“We are truly happy today to welcome Trader Joe’s aboard the Fair Food Program,” said Gerardo Reyes of the CIW. “Trader Joe’s is cherished by its customers for a number of reasons, but high on that list is the company’s commitment to ethical purchasing practices. With this agreement, Trader Joe’s reaffirms that commitment and sends a strong — and timely — message of support to the Florida growers who are choosing to do the right thing, investing in improved labor standards, despite the challenges of a difficult marketplace and tough economic times.”

This is only the latest success for the CIW, which has been working to improve the wages of Florida farm workers since 1993.  The coalition works on several goals, but the Fair Food Campaign is their most prominent one.  A groundbreaking approach to social responsibility in the US produce industry, the campagin combines the Fair Food Code of Conduct – a set of labor standards developed in a unique collaboration among farmworkers, tomato growers, and the food industry leaders who purchase Florida tomatoes – with a small price premium to help improve harvesters’ wages.

The average household income for a farmworker in the US is between $15,000-$17,500 a year, well below the federal poverty line.  This is a contributing factor to the prevalence of child labor in agriculture – families need the extra income just to survive. Tomato pickers in Florida receive the same basic rate of pay now as they did thirty years ago.  When adjusted for inflation, their wages have actually dropped by half over that period. They usually earn 50 cents per every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes.  Average workdays consist of 14 hours and they are not able to get overtime. The harsh working conditions along with the limited wages has led the CIW to devise their action plans against the corporations which are most exploitative of this system.

The CIW has various strategies to put pressure on important food chains in the United States and they’ve been successfully implementing those strategies since 2001 with their Taco Bell boycott. The boycott lasted for four years and incited boycott committees in almost all 50 states, which eventually led to an agreement with the chain in 2005.  McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Bon Appétit Management Company, Compass Group, Aramark, Sodexo, and Whole Foods have all since signe don as well.

Although support within the fast-food industry and other sectors of the food industry has grown and the CIW has been able to reach several agreements with different chains and food service providers, they have turned their focus to the supermarket industry, which they believe lies at the heart of their campaign. Whole Foods Market was the first supermarket to sign an agreement with the CIW, but it wasn’t until February of 2012 that they got the support of a second major supermarket chain, Trader Joe’s.

Protests against Trader Joe’s have been ongoing for the past year throughout their locations across the country. Trader Joe’s has actively resisted pressure from the coalition and other groups, but finally relented in February.

The CIW’s next target is supermarket chain Publix, and to reach their goal they are planning a 6-day fast on March. Other giants in the supermarket industry that they seek to make an agreement with in the future are Ahold and Kroger. The coalition sees the supermarket industry as the remaining obstacle in their goal to make significant changes for the rights of farm workers.

The coalition has grown from a small community initiative to a powerful and influential body with an expanding public presence. They seek to grow and to keep promoting meaningful change and through their campaigns raise awareness and reach necessary agreements that will produce a fair system between the food industries and farm workers.

Visit: http://ciw-online.org/ for more information.

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1 year old America is already in the fields with her family - what is in her future? The US House Small Business Subcommittee is holding a hearing on it 2/2/12. Still from The Harvest/La Cosecha.

The US House Small Business Subcommittee on Agriculture, Energy and Trade is holding a hearing entitled The Future of the Family Farm: The Effect of Proposed DOL Regulations on Small Business Producers on February 2, 2012, on proposed rules to prevent child farmworkers from taking on the most dangerous tasks. The new rules are intended to make paid farm work safer for the hundreds of thousands of children in the United States who labor in agriculture. They would not apply to children working on their parents’ farms.

“Sixteen children died at work in the US last year, and twelve of those were fatally injured while working on farms,” said Zama Coursen-Neff, deputy children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The rules need to change to ensure that the most dangerous farm jobs are done by adults, not children.”

On September 2, 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would make revisions to existing regulations pertaining to the employment of youths on farming and ranching operations.  Yesterday, February 1st, the DOL announced updates to the parental exemption portion of the proposed changes to better address farmers’ concerns.  The hearing will examine these rules so that members may better understand their potential effect on small business farm operations as well as youths working in or training for occupations in agriculture.

The subcommittee Chairman Scott Tipton (R-CO) issued a statement yesterday saying he believed “the rule altogether should never have been proposed” as it “would change long-standing and proven programs.”  Current child labor laws derive from the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act when agriculture was exempted from the protections given to children in other industries.  Children working in agriculture are permitted to do more work at younger ages than children working in other industries, they suffer more fatalities than they do in non-agricultural industries, and their work-related injuries tend to be more severe than injuries to children working in non-agricultural industries. Clearly something does need to change.

Witnesses include Nancy J. Leppink, Deputy Administrator Wage and Hour Division speaking on behalf of updating current child labor laws and Chris Chinn, Owner, Chinn Hog Farm testifying on behalf of the American Farm Bureau, Bob Tabb, Deputy Commissioner, West Virginia State Department of Agriculture, and Rick Ebert, Vice President, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and others speaking against new child labor protections.  You can read their statements on the Committee’s website.

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By Julia Perez


12 year-old Zulema Lopez hauls a bag of freshly cut onions in San Ygnacio, Texas instead of going to school. Photo by U. Roberto Romano


As I read the recent headlines opposing the Department of Labor’s (DOL) proposed protections for working children in agriculture, my foremost thought was ‘I’m too logical for politics.’ In a few short months since the announcement, an estimated 98 Congressional Representatives and 28 State Senators rallied to protest and further request a stop to the protections. (Labor Department asked to Drop Labor Changes, Dec 22, 2011, Peggy Lowe and U.S. Senators oppose farm youth labor rules changes, Dec 21, 2011, Dan Piller ) Yet it took years to garner 107 representatives for the CARE Bill, which still hasn’t left committee. Yes, it just doesn’t make sense.

What forces want to keep children working? Could they be inspired by former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich? He recently suggested we encourage children under 14, 16 years of age to work because they’re poor and in a failing school. (Gingrich: Laws preventing child labor are ‘truly stupid’, Nov 19, 2011, Kevin Liptak) Let’s put aside the negative impact on education, and health for a moment. Does introducing more children into the workforce help with high unemployment? Perhaps Newt forgot the principles of supply and demand. Newt says poor children don’t have role models to demonstrate work ethics. Let’s put aside that statistics demonstrate this is untrue. (Gingrich’s Proposals on Child Labor Stir Attacks, But Raise Issues, Dec 7, 2011, Liz Halloran) If a child did take their parent’s place in the workplace, the number of hours required would jeopardize their education – the known solution to poverty. Newt plainly doesn’t know the difference between recreational work and working out of desperation. Could he be after cheap labor – children often earn less than adults – or could it be he doesn’t understand the cycle which makes a child choose between study and work; the difference between eating, having electricity and being put in a situation where you can’t say no because now you’re one of the breadwinners. Well, we can’t blame it all on Newt. He just epitomizes the challenge child advocates face.

By Dec 1, 2011 an estimated 18,000 emails, calls and letters were received by the DOL. I randomly chose comments from the public records. Many were nostalgic and/or incorrect. The American Farm Bureau, National Farmers Union, farm owners, children of farmers, and 4-H members oppose the changes. They argue that an early introduction to farm work is both valuable and essential. Let’s put aside the fact that DOL changes only affect hired youth and maintain the parental exemption for family farms. First, the early introduction argument is effectively used for Olympic hopefuls and professional athletes. Agriculture is not on the same level, unless you’re cynically comparing harvesting produce with professional sports, which can both cause long-term physical damage by age forty. Second, in my opinion, farmers care for their children differently than hired help. This is human nature and perhaps the reason the exemption continues to be honored.

The proposed changes are meant to improve everyone’s safety, especially hired youth who are not related to the owners. This is the essence of the improvements, which stem from the number of injuries and deaths to minors on farms. This basic message is lost in legal jargon, as in the previously mentioned letter sent to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis by Congressional Representatives and Senators. The letter calls for more data, which is akin to saying the currently incurred injuries and/or deaths aren’t enough. Ask any parent how many of their own kids need to die before they’d demand improvements. Just how many kids have to die?

The twelve-page letter dedicates a significant amount of space to the definition of a parent. Specifically, the letter first finds existing language that supports the underlying premise of corporations as parents, then raises concerns about the proposed explicit language which defines a parent as a human being:

“The parent or person standing in the place of the parent shall be a human being and not an institution or facility, such as a corporation, business, partnership, orphanage, school, church, or a farm dedicated to the rehabilitation of children.”

The letter’s conclusion leads to the premise that farming corporations are parents. The logic suggests that since there is a parental exemption, and parents are farm owners and some family farms are corporations, the parental exemption extends to corporations.

In 2010 corporations essentially became people with free speech rights as decided by Citizens United vs. FEC. (Jan 21, 2012 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, Supreme Court) Corporations are people, corporations are parents! The ramifications are limitless. Cargill, who generated 109.84 billion in revenues in 2009, is a private family-owned corporation.

I naively thought protecting children in agriculture would receive unanimous support because it was logical. The comments and arguments I’ve read in the media would be roundly condemned, if they came from another country. We point our fingers at China or India for not protecting vulnerable children. While we all wait for the outcome from the DOL, I’m investigating alternative solutions. If farming is taken indoors, similar to manufacturing, the child labor exemptions no longer apply, right? Engineers and scientists can make it happen. Stay tuned for my thoughts on the Vertical Farm.

_____________________________________

Julia Perez is an electrical engineer and writer. She is currently writing Among the Forgotten, which describes the behind-the-scenes challenges of filming The Harvest/La Cosecha.

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Victor, age 16, hauls up to 1500 lbs of tomatoes in a day in the heat of Florida's summer

Shine Global is dedicated to ending the exploitation and abuse of children worldwide and in this pursuit we make films that raise awareness and effect change on behalf of their well-being.  It was for this reason that we recently released our documentary, THE HARVEST/LA COSECHA, which told the stories of 3 of the estimated 400,000 American child migrant farm workers who work as many as 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, at below minimum wage salaries.  They work legally from the age of 12 in all weather extremes in what is the most dangerous occupation extant for minors.  They earn no overtime and no sick days.

This is legal in America because the Fair Labor Standards Act, enacted in 1938, excluded agriculture and thus left thousands of children unprotected.  Shine applauds US Labor Secretary Hilda Solis for the changes the Department of Labor proposes to make that will close this gap and provide equal protections to minors, whatever their occupation.  We encourage all Shine supporters to educate themselves about the existing legislation and pending revisions and to demonstrate their support for the health and wellbeing of our children.

The proposed rules maintain the current parental exemption and would not apply to children working on their parents’ farm.   They would prohibit hired workers under age 16 from working with certain animals, handling pesticides, working in timber operations, and working in or around manure pits and storage bins. Further, the new rules would prohibit farm workers under the age of 16 from participating in the cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco (which causes severe tobacco poisoning) and from operating power driven equipment. The department is also proposing a new non-ag hazardous occupations (non-ag HO) order that would prevent children under the age of 18 from working in grain elevators, feed lots, stockyards, and livestock exchanges and auctions. The DOL is also soliciting comments, and may institute regulations, limiting hired youths’ exposure to extreme temperatures, as well as whether the payment of piece rates to young farm workers impacts their prolonged exposure to potentially harmful conditions.

The full document of proposed changes and the DOL’s justifications can be read at:  http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=WHD-2011-0001-0001

Comments can be made electronically at the above website or by mail to: Wage and Hour Division, U.S. Department of Labor, Room S-3502, 200 Constitution Avenue, NW., Washington, DC 20210.
Comments should be identified by Document ID: WHD-2011-0001- 0001, RIN 1235-AA06

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Eva Longoria and Eric Schlosser at California Endowment screening of The Harvest/La Cosecha November 16, 2011

The Harvest/La Cosecha screened at the California Endowment in Los Angeles last night.  Executive Producer Eva Longoria was joined by author Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and activist Jose Padilla (Executive Director of California Rural Legal Assistance) for a post screening panel discussion on the issues faced by child migrant farmworkers  in the US.

Shine Global would like to thank the California Endowment for making this event possible and the wonderful panelists for expanding on the issues shown in the film.

The Harvest/La Cosecha DVD is now available for purchase from Cinema Libre Studio at http://store.cinemalibrestore.com/theharvestlacosechadvd.html

If you are interested in hosting a screening at your organization, university, or school please contact screenings@cinemalibrestudio.com

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Why is the DOL Holding Back? Agriculture: Separate and Unequal
By Julia Perez


Zulema Lopez picking crops

Children can legally pick crops in the US at age 12. The DOL is now seeking comments on proposed new regulations that may make it safer for them.

On September 2, 2011 the Department of Labor (DOL) announced proposed revisions to child labor regulations in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and is currently seeking public comments until Nov 1, 2011. The department is tasked with ensuring that work for young people is “safe, age appropriate, and does not jeopardize their schooling.”[1] Because of an exemption made in 1938 to the FLSA that excludes worker children, agriculture in America today is reminiscent of a third world country where children as young as twelve labor. I hoped the time for equal justice had arrived, so my heart sank when I read the proposal would “increase parity between the agricultural and nonagricultural child labor provisions.”[2] Only increase, not equalize. Why is separate and unequal allowed?

I continued reading this lengthy, opaque document and a quote struck me “The death rate for agricultural workers is exceeded only by those for miners and construction workers. The agricultural revolution of the past thirty years has mechanized the farm and increased the use of chemicals. Today the farm has many, if not more, hazards than [any other] industry.” This quote was from Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz in 1967. What a powerful statement and never more true than today. One wonders what forces kept Wirtz from acting. One wonders how many lives might have been changed if he had.

Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard knows how many lives are affected by this inaction. She introduced the CARE Act which aims to equalize child labor laws, but it has failed to leave committee since 2001[3]. I applaud the current DOL team, lead by Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, for taking up the challenge. In a June 2009 speech at the American Society of Safety Engineers’ annual conference, Solis said: “There is a new Sheriff in town…. Make no mistake about it, the Department of Labor is back in the enforcement business. We are serious, very serious.” The proposed changes do look serious and I support the protections whole-heartedly.

Tyler Zander and Bryce Gannon of Oklahoma who lost their legs to a grain auger[4] would likely agree with the protections regarding farm-product raw materials including grain silos. The proposal comprehensive investigation further states the fatality rate for teen-agers in agriculture as four times greater than that for average working teenagers.

Another highlight is the proposed increase of penalties. Yes, create accountability with a monetary spanking. Perhaps this is what the father of Hannah Kendall had in mind when he filed a lawsuit against Monsanto[5]. Fourteen-year-old Hannah and her friend Jade Garza were electrocuted while detassling corn this summer in Illinois[6].

For the children, twelve and even younger in some circumstances, the DOL clarifies the definition of a parent and clarifies consent to mean written consent. Some may ask what these minor changes accomplish. The written consent forces accountability and may provide insight into the actual number of children laboring in the fields.

While I support the proposed changes, they don’t meet my expectations of ending decades of wholesale discrimination against children in the fields. The department only seeks comments on the following[7]:

  • Limiting the time young hired farm workers spend in extreme temperatures and/or arduous conditions. The proposal sited heat stress as a recognized hazard. In terms of regulating heat exposure, the DOL can look at the heat regulations in California enacted in 2006 in response to the six deaths in 2005. Despite these regulations, 14 heat related deaths occurred in 2008. Why didn’t it work? A California teen-ager shared watching a woman faint in the strawberry fields next to him. While some collapse or even die, others manage to survive. How will anyone determine what a 12 year old child can handle? A parent desperate for work and fearful of losing their only job may not be empowered to make the right decision.

  • If the payment of piece rates contributes to young farm workers prolonged exposure to potentially harmful conditions. Is it the piece rate system or is it the lack of protection, such as unlimited working days and hours due to a 1938 exemption? Hmmm. A teen-ager in Watsonville, Ca. said the foreman imposed quotas when minimum wage was paid. No easy solution but doing the obvious-one equal set of age limits and protections for all children.

The DOL can’t legislate a living wage for farm workers. They can take a stand on oppressive child labor rather than just chip away at this stain on our moral and legal history. I can’t help but ask why the DOL is holding back. Is it the fear of a backlash from the Farm Bureau, agricultural corporations, their lobbyists and legal teams? Why doesn’t the DOL take a stand and tell them they can’t have our children, any of them, as a source of cheap, expendable labor?

The DOL report is frustratingly contradictory in that it sites pesticide risks three times in support of added protections in nonagricultural industries. Yet, the report states in regard to child farm workers “the health effects of pesticides on children, as opposed to the adult worker population, have not been adequately studied and the data is limited.”[8] In essence, children can’t handle pesticides directly but they continue to be exposed to them while harvesting produce.

Why doesn’t the DOL recognize the unhealthy posture, repetitive motion, and weight hazards associated with harvesting produce as they did with the proposed protections for children milking cows? Ask Marisol C., 20 yrs old, of California about the painkiller injections into her back she still receives two years after escaping fieldwork. Ask Emily G., 13 yrs old, of Michigan about the pain in her knees and back related to picking cucumbers and strawberries.

If these physical health issues due to the brutal work, pesticide exposure, and heat aren’t sufficient, then the DOL should address their duty to ‘ensure work does not jeopardize their schooling’.  Specifically, investigate the number of laboring children dropping out of high school. They can speak to Maribel T. who has felt behind in school since the fourth grade. Or to Vic T. who said he always felt like he had to choose between school and work.

The high school dropout rate for farm worker children is four times the national rate.  Maybe educators who work with farm working children can simply send the DOL the names of the children, the age when their childhood ended, the date of the death of their dreams and potential due to the exemption made in 1938.

The families’ financial desperation, lack of resources and education drive them to take the children to work in the fields. What excuse does the DOL have for keeping them there? The Secretary of Labor should show the bold leadership expected of “the new sheriff in town.” There is never a perfect time to do the right thing.

The 107 co-sponsors of the CARE Act in 2010[9], their constituents, and numerous organizations support the DOL in granting full parity to all children. No industry should survive off the backs of children, not while the people have a voice.

Readers can exercise their voice and send comments as requested, identified by RIN 1235-AA06, for public record, on-line at http://www.regulations.gov on or before November 1, 2011.

Julia Perez is an Electrical Engineer, and writer. Her experience as a child laborer, age 5 – 17 in ten states, led her to serve as the Associate Director of The Harvest.  Julia is currently writing Among the Forgotten, which describes the behind the scene challenges of filming The Harvest/La Cosecha.


[1] Federal Register/Vol. 76, No. 171, 9/2/2011 page 54836 Summary Section
[2] Federal Register/Vol. 76, No. 171, 9/2/2011 page 54836 section II background
[3] http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/D?d107:1:./temp/~bd0i1h::
[4] http://enidnews.com/localnews/x541065053/Teens-critically-injured
[5]
http://stlouis.cbslocal.com/2011/08/06/monsanto-sued-over-cornfield-electrocution/
[6] http://www.saukvalley.com/articles/2011/07/25/06087430/index.xml
[7] Register/Vol. 78, No. 171, 9/2/2011 page 54865
[8] Register/Vol. 78, No. 171, 9/2/2011 page 54843
[9] http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h112-2234

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