My path from strawberry and blueberry fields to college

By Alma Hernandez, NCL Child Labor Coalition Summer 2022 Intern

Alma attends the University of South Florida, where she is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Public Health.

Alma Hernandez (far right) is joined by fellow National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association  farmworker youth interns Jose Velasquez Castellano and Gizela Gaspar. NCL CLC Coordinator Reid Maki is also in the photo.

Imagine being a five-year-old child – happy and carefree. The age where you either attend pre-K or start kindergarten. But can you imagine a five-year-old working in farm fields in hot 90-degree humid weather with her parents? I was that child. I wore a long-sleeved shirt, jeans, closed-toed shoes, and a hat to protect me from the hot sun. At five years old, I was unaware of how difficult agricultural labor is. My mom had enrolled me at the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA), a Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program, but she also wanted to teach me to value my education.

My mother’s life lesson started during the weekend after I did not want to wake up for school. My mother remembers that I was full of confidence when asked if I wanted to go to work with her and my father. However, I did not know what was in store for me.

Arriving at the fields around 7:30 am, I first saw endless rows of strawberry fields. I felt enthusiastic. My task: collect as many bright red strawberries as I could and place them in my pink Halloween bucket. After filling my bucket, I would give the strawberries to one of my parents. Around 12, I felt the heat. It was around 90 degrees. The humidity made it feel worse. I felt like I was in 100-degree weather; I did not like that at all and wanted to go home. I was already tired and asked if we could leave. My mom said no; I had to stay until they finished. And so I kept working.

I do not recall what happened the rest of the time I was there, but I remember what happened afterward. I went home and sat on the stairs of the house with a red face, a headache, and clothes covered in dirt, and reflected on the decision I had made to join my parents in the strawberry fields. I went inside. I was so tired that I ignored dinner and skipped a shower and went straight to bed just to wake up the next day, to repeat another day of long, hard work. My parents had me help them one more day; and convinced that my lesson was learned, they let stay home where, in the next few years, I could help take care of younger siblings when my parents could not find childcare.

Although my work in the strawberry fields was short-lived, I have much more experience harvesting blueberries. I started working on blueberry farms when I was 12 years old and worked every summer until I was 16. The blueberry season starts in the summer after school ends in Florida.

My family and I would leave Florida near the end of June and start the 17-hour drive to Michigan. Unlike the strawberry season, I liked picking blueberries because I did not have to bend down low to the ground all day; blueberry plants grow higher. My job was to fill up my six buckets. Once they were all filled, I would carry all the buckets to place them into plastic containers and have them weighed. On average, six buckets would be 42 to 45 pounds, and depending on who we were working for, the average pay was 0.45 to 0.55 cents a pound. I had to pick as many pounds as I could. On good days, I would be able to pick 200 pounds or more; on many other days, I would pick less.

The clothing I wore was also the same: long sleeves, jeans, closed toes shoes, and a hat to protect myself from the sun. The weather in Michigan is not as humid as it is in Florida; usually, it was in the mid-80s to low 90-degrees however it was still hot being there all day. We would go in each morning at 8:30 or later depending on how wet the blueberry plants were and leave the fields around 8 or 9 at night.

I did not like going to a new school in Michigan every September just to leave in late October and return to Florida and start school. The curriculum was very different; I would excel quickly in Michigan since what I was learning I had already studied in Florida. But I also did not like how every time I would go to a new school, I’d be the “new girl,” struggling to make friends but knowing I would soon be migrating. “What is the point?” I would wonder. So I always kept to myself and only spoke when I was spoken to, and to this day I still do.

I also did not like the “what did you do during the summer?” question on the first day of school when I returned to Florida because all I did was work all summer and had no fun. Work caused my parents to miss many school functions that other parents would attend. Sometimes, it felt like a lack of support, but I understood that this type of work was their only way to generate income to provide for the family.

This summer, after four years away, I came back to Michigan with my family for the blueberry harvest one more time. Now that I am 20 and reflecting on my family’s agricultural experience, I appreciate my parents for what they have done for my siblings and me. They wake up early every day, go to work, come home to cook, and still spend a little bit of time with my younger siblings. I help around as much as I can because I know they cannot do everything on their own, especially now that they are getting older. I know they are tired and have no rest days. But thanks to them, I am the first person in my family to go to college and serve as an example to my siblings which proves to them that there is a reason for our parent’s sacrifices.

Dispatches from Durban: May 15-20, 2022

Reflections on the 5th Global Conference on the elimination of child labour in Durban, South Africa: May 15-20, 2022

Reid Maki is the director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League and he coordinates the Child Labor Coalition.

The recently-concluded week-long “5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour” in Durban, South Africa was convened against the backdrop of the announcement last July of an alarming rise in child labor numbers after two decades of steady and significant declines in global child labor totals.

The global conference, which typically comes about every four years, brought together an estimated 1,000 delegates from foreign governments and small number of representatives of NGOs. It also brought together for the first time at one of the quadrennial child labor conferences dozens of participant youth advocates as well as a number of child labor victims and survivors.

The conference had the difficult mission of righting the ship and trying to reverse the rising child labor numbers, which seem destined to rise further as the COVID pandemic’s impact will continue to be felt for years. Sadly, the pandemic threw 1.6 million children out of school, often for prolonged periods and some of those children entered work and may never return to school.

We would first like to thank the South Africa government for the herculean task of organizing a global conference during a still raging pandemic, all against a backdrop of devastating floods in April that savaged the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Easter Cape and killed nearly 500 people, destroyed 4,000 homes and displaced 40,000 people.

As the conference opened, Guy Ryder, the Director General of the International Labour Organization, which helped advise the government of South Africa on the organization of the conference, suggested that the rise in 8 million child laborers from 152 million to 160 million likely represented complacency and a loss of focus by global governments on the child labor problem and must be rectified. He noted increases in child labor impacting children under age 11 and urged delegates to redouble their efforts. “We need to increase our efforts, and pay particular attention to child labor in agriculture,” said Ryder, who added that child labor advocacy is threatened by a “perfect storm” created by COVID’s enduring impact, rising food insecurity, and debt crises that are expected to impact 60 nations in the coming years.

South Africa’s president Cyril Ramamphosa delivered a stirring welcome. He noted that his country’s embrace of child rights is not just a matter of principle. “The assertion of the rights of children was a direct response to the deprivation, discrimination and deliberate neglect that had been visited on the black children of this county by successive colonial apartheid administrations,” said Ramamphosa. “Child labor perpetuate the cycle of poverty, denying young people the education they need to improve their circumstances. It condemns communities to forms of economic activity and labor that limit any prospect of advancement or progress.”

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi noted the particular challenge that the sub-Saharan African region is facing with the highest rates of child labor and one in five children are in child labor.

Satyarthi urged listeners to embrace the idea that every single child can be protected from child labor. “Let us march from exploitation to education,” he urged, calling for children to have a “fair share” of resources. The amount needed to ensure all children have access to needed resources is only $53 billion – not much considering the wealth of many nations, said Satyarthi who also noted that the G7, which is about to meet on June 26th, has never focused attention collectively on child labor. “This needs to change,” he urged.

The conference opened with a pledge by European Union (EU) Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen that the EU will create a new $10 million euro initiative to reduce child labor in agriculture. Child labor must return to the political agenda, she urged.

The six-day conference, attended by 1,0000 delegates in person and an estimated 7,000 online, according to organizers, featured workshops and side events, and included three meetings every other day by separate groups of employers, workers, and governments. Readers can find a conference agenda here with video links to many sessions.

Twenty-four side events focused on many related topics including child labor in supply chains, a decent work agenda, youth-led activism, small-scale mining, livelihoods skills development, African priorities, partnership in Latin America to end child labor, due diligence legislation, data and research needs, labor inspections, artisanal fisheries and aquaculture, and a child-labor-free zone in Ghana. For a complete list and to view specific side events, please go to agenda, scroll each day’s offerings and click links to the videos.

Attendees learned a lot about specific intervention efforts, and the struggles many nations are engaged in, including Malawi, which has recently been hit by two cyclones and where there is a shortage of 50,000 schools – less than half of the children have access to education, said the nation’s Education Minister Agnes Nyalongje. She pleaded for international help, noting that 12 years of sustained aid could create generational change in Malawi and fix its troubled education system.

It’s difficult to summarize the hundreds of hours of content but readers may get a sense from the CLC’s twitter stream which included four to five dozen original tweets at @ChildLaborCLC.

The conference’s concluding “Call to Action” document emphasizes the need for urgent action, because “the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, armed conflicts, and food, humanitarian and environmental crises threaten to reverse years of progress against child labour”. The document includes commitments in six different areas:

  • Make decent work a reality for adults and youth above the minimum age for work by accelerating multi-stakeholder efforts to eliminate child labour, with priority given to the worst forms of child labour.
  • End child labour in agriculture.
  • Strengthen the prevention and elimination of child labour, including its worst forms, forced labour, modern slavery and trafficking in persons, and the protection of survivors through data-driven and survivor-informed policy and programmatic responses.
  • Realize children’s right to education and ensuring universal access to free, compulsory, quality, equitable and inclusive education and training.
  • Achieving universal access to social protection.
  • Increasing financing and international cooperation for the elimination of child labour and forced labour.

As is often the case at conferences, many of the side conversations are of great interest. We had many great conversations with Simon Steyne, who recently retired from the International Labour Organization but continues his child labor advocacy. Simon is campaigning to bring about a child-labor-in-agriculture conference in the coming year. With 70 percent of global child labor in agriculture and rising child labor rates, a focus on agriculture at this time is absolutely essential, Steyne argued.

What might have been improved at the conference? It seems that a relatively small number of Civil Society participants were invited to the conference, included few from the Americas and Asia. The pandemic and travel distances certainly impacted in-person attendance. And we know a lot of NGO participants were able to join online. We hope that a broader spectrum of Civil Society is invited to future global child labor conferences. NGO delegates often possess in-the-field, grass roots knowledge lacked by government and employer groups and NGO presence is a key element in the fight to reverse accelerating incidence of child labor.

The Civil Society advocates and experts who were there enhanced the conference greatly, mostly through the two dozen side events. We were delighted to be joined at the conference by CLC members Bank Information Center and GoodWeave, which organized the side event “Child Labour Free Supply Chains: Tackling Root Causes from Maker to Market” — included panelist Thea Lee, the deputy undersecretary for International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor, who was ubiquitous at the conference. CLC-member Action Against Child Exploitation (ACE) also presented a side event: “Promoting an Integrated Area-based Approach to the Elimination of Child Labour: A Case of the Child Labour Free Zone in Ghana,” with Yuka Iwatsuki, president of ACE among the panelists.

In addition to thanking our gracious South African hosts and the ILO for its organizing role, the CLC also wishes to express appreciation to our valued partners the Global March Against Child Labour and the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation for enhancing the conference significantly through organizing side events and bringing the voices of youth advocates to Durban.

Tara Banjara. 17, was among the youth advocates who appeared as a panelist. Tara said she is from a community in India where there are no schools and “no one had an idea about what education is.” She was four and half when she went to work on roads with her mother. They cleaned garbage and rubble out of potholes. The work was exhausting and difficult and went on till she was rescued by Bachpan Bachao Andolan’s Bal Ashram.

Today, Tara is the first girl to complete grade 12 exams in her entire family. She asked attendance participants gathered in Durban and the thousands on line: “Is this our fault that if we are born in a small village, we do not have the right to live our childhood with freedom?” She asked.

“We want freedom. We want the right to education,” Tara said, sharing her dream of becoming a police officer some day and working at the grassroots level to ensure that all children have equal rights and freedom. In one of the conference’s emotional high points, Tara asked attendees to stand and make a pledge: “Let us all pledge to create a world where every child is free from slavery; every child gets an education and an opportunity to fulfill their dreams.”

National Consumers League applauds the awarding of the prestigious Iqbal Masih Child Labor Award for the Elimination of Child Labor to Norma Flores López and the International Labour Organization

June 11, 2021

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org(412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org(202) 207-2832

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League (NCL), America’s pioneering consumer and worker advocacy organization and a leader in the fight to reduce child labor globally, welcomes the awarding of the Iqbal Masih Child labor Elimination Award to the Norma Flores López and the International Labor Organization on Thursday.

Iqbal Masih, for whom the award was named, was sold into slavery in his native Pakistan as a rug weaver at age 4, and escaped his captors at age 10. He became a prominent voice against child labor before he was murdered for his activism at age 12.

Norma Flores López, who is a member of NCL’s Board of Directors, works closely with NCL on the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), which NCL founded and has co-chaired since 1989. The following statement is attributable to NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg:

Norma began working in U.S. fields as a small child, and as a teenager began to speak out against the exploitation of farmworker children – something NCL and the CLC has combatted for decades. She has been a tireless advocate against child labor and has shared her experiences and expertise at numerous international conferences, in newspapers, and on television news magazines, including 60 minutes. Today, Norma heads the CLC’s Domestic Issues Committee, helping us to develop strategies to equalize protections for children who have entered work at early ages. We’re so pleased that Norma’s passion and commitment for protecting children has been recognized with this prestigious award. NCL also works closely with the International Labour Organization, and applauds its recognition as a leading player in the fight against child labor.

###

About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

What’s the real cost of a banana?

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow
When we buy a product at our local grocery store, we sometimes do not think of how the product was sourced or what it took to get it to our shopping cart. One such commonly consumed product are bananas. With more than a billion eaten yearly, it’s one of the top five fruits consumed worldwide. Let us ask the question, “what is the real cost of a banana?” by diving deeper into the banana industry and, specifically, its exploitation of child labor.

According to the International Labor Organization, child labor is defined as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.” Globally, 152 million children are trapped in child labor, highlighting the extent of the problem. The banana industry is just one of many industries using child labor. The two regions that are the largest producers of bananas are Asia and Latin America.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2017 Findings of the Worst Forms of Child Labor, 57 percent of child laborers in Brazil were working in agriculture, with high concentration in the North and the Northeast regions. In Brazil, the Government of Brazil’s Household Survey estimated that 2,936 children under the age of 14 were involved in cultivating bananas in 2015. When Oxfam New Zealand interviewed households in banana plantation towns in the Philippines, they found that 22.5 percent reported having a child working.

Banana plantation laborers in the Philippines may be hired by middlemen who deploy them to different plantations or farms owned by corporate growers, Oxfam New Zealand found. On these banana plantations, child laborers are assigned to bagging and stripping of banana leaves. These growers then sell bananas to major global brands such as Dole, Chiquita, or Del Monte.

The U.S. imported over $2.8 billion in bananas which is 17.6 percent of total imported bananas in 2019 according to World Top Exports. As consumers, we have the power to demand that companies create non-exploitative, fair trade, and child labor free products. Consumers need to take a stance against products made with child labor, which would put pressure on companies to implement fair and ethical policies governed by accountability measures. It is an indisputable truth that how you spend your money can literally affect the lives of millions around the world.

As consumers in a country with dominant economic power, it is imperative for us to learn about the origins of the products we use. We all must do our part. One way to start is to download an app called Sweat & Toil—created by the U.S. Department of Labor—which lets you:

  1. check countries’ efforts to eliminate child labor;
  2. find child labor data;
  3. browse goods produced with child labor or forced labor;
  4. review local and international laws and ratifications; and
  5. see what governments can do to end child labor.

The other way consumers can make more responsible decisions is by visiting the Equal Exchange online and via social media. In 1986, Equal Exchange became a pioneer in fair trade coffee by paying mutually agreed upon prices with a guaranteed minimum to small-scale coffee farmers. And in 2006, it began working towards applying this model to bananas. Equal Exchange bananas are grown at three small farmer cooperatives in Ecuador and Peru. Through democratically organized co-ops, farmers leverage collective resources and obtain access to global markets, maintaining agency over their businesses, land, and livelihoods. Consumers can request these bananas from their local grocery stores.

The banana industry continues to engage in unfair labor practices, subject workers to dangerous working conditions, and perpetuate global inequalities. Let us be informed consumers and take action to stop child labor by supporting certified, fair trade organic bananas.

Not so sweet: Child labor in banana production

By Child Labor Coalition intern Ellie Murphy

Americans eat a lot of bananas. The U.S. is the world’s biggest importer of bananas, eating between 28 and 30 bananas per person per year. Worldwide, bananas are the most popular fruit with 100 billion consumed annually. The fruit is nutritious and cheap. Prices generally fluctuate between 30 cents and $1.00 per banana. It’s a great deal for the consumer, but someone is paying a heavy price to produce bananas: exploited farmworkers, including many children.
Stagnating banana prices have put the squeeze on farmers, leading some planters to hire the cheapest workers—children. The work is hard, often dangerous, and not fit for children. Yet they toil in the fields to help their impoverished families.

Countries that use child labor to produce bananas include Ecuador, Belize, Brazil, Nicaragua, and the Philippines, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s (USDOL) List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor.

Poverty is the main driver of child labor, but children in the developing world face barriers to accessing education that can push them to farm work. Besides the cost of school, uniforms, and books, there are also some countries that don’t have enough schools, classrooms, or teachers. And transportation problems can impact children’s ability to attend school.

Child labor in the banana sector poses significant challenges to children’s health and overall well-being. Child workers employed at these plantations are often forced to handle sharp tools like machetes, carry heavy loads, and face exposure to agrochemicals like pesticides and fungicides without protective clothing or gear. Dizziness, nausea, and negative long-term health conditions can result in child workers, and because child workers often live on banana plantations, escaping these health hazards is nearly impossible.

Let’s take a closer look at Ecuador, the world’s top exporter of bananas.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in April 2002 found widespread labor and human rights abuses on Ecuadorian banana plantations. Children as young as eight were found performing hazardous work. “The use of harmful child labor is widespread in Ecuador’s banana sector,” concluded HRW. Report authors interviewed 45 child banana workers and found that 41 began working between eight and 13 with most starting at age 10 or 11. “Their average workday lasted twelve hours, and fewer than 40 percent of the children were still in school by the time they turned fourteen,” noted HRW. According to USDOL, almost half of indigenous children in rural areas do not attend school, “which can make them more vulnerable to child labor.

“In the course of their work, [child banana workers] were exposed to toxic pesticides, used sharp knives and machetes, hauled heavy loads of bananas, drank unsanitary water, and some were sexually harassed,” noted HRW.

Roughly 90 percent of the children HRW interviewed reported that they “continued working while toxic fungicides were sprayed from airplanes flying overhead. In an attempt to avoid harmful chemicals, children interviewed about their experience stated that they used various methods to avoid toxic chemicals: “hiding under banana leaves, bowing their heads, covering their faces with their shirts, covering their noses and mouths with their hands, and placing banana cartons on their heads.”

About one in 20 Ecuadorian children in the 5-14 age group work—and four in five of these child workers toil on farms, according to data from USDOL released in its 2019 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor (2019) report.

Clearly, child labor laws in Ecuador are not being adequately enforced. Alarmingly, according to the USDOL, funding for Ecuador’s labor inspectorate fell dramatically from $1.5 million in 2017 to $265,398 in 2018. During that time the number of inspectors increased from 150 to 249. There is no explanation provided for these conflicting numbers but USDOL did note there were fiscal pressures on the Ecuadorian government.

The 2002 HRW report cited many causes of child labor, including discrimination against unionized adult workers who earn higher wages. As a result, many workers who unionize are fired and replaced with children who earn around $3.50 per day, 60 percent of the minimum wage for banana farmers. “Ecuadorian law fails to protect effectively the right to freedom of association, and employers take advantage of the weak law and even weaker enforcement to impede worker organizing,” noted HRW.

Since the 2002 HRW report, Ecuador has raised the minimum age of employment to 15, banned children from hazardous work, and raised fines for employers hiring children.

In its 2019 child labor Findings report, USDOL noted that “in 2018, Ecuador made a significant advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor.” One change involved better protecting unionized employees against discrimination so that children are not targeted for cheap labor. Ecuador has also created more social programs for children susceptible to child labor, including the “Lifetime Plan” that provides conditional cash transfers to vulnerable children from birth.

Despite the positive ranking for Ecuador, child labor in the banana sector continues to be prevalent in Ecuador.  Poverty and limited law enforcement make child labor an unfortunate reality for families.

Banana exporting companies often fail to address adequately child labor and hazardous working conditions in their supply chains. The big players –Dole, Del Monte, and Chiquita Fyffes—need to do more if we are to end child labor in banana production. Dole claims to prohibit child labor stating that “[it prohibits] any people younger than 18 from being hired or employed in any form.” Yet, child labor in the sector flourishes in at least five of the major exporting countries, according to USDOL.

In its Findings report, USDOL makes a number of recommendations to help reduce child labor in Ecuador, including a call for a new national child labor survey, added funding to hire more labor inspectors, and social programs in rural farm areas and informal sectors. USDOL also suggests “removing school-related fees, increasing classroom space, and providing adequate transportation.” These modifications will specifically help children living in rural areas such as migrant children and indigenous children stay in school.

Concerted efforts by the Ecuadorian government and multinational banana exporters are needed if child labor is to be reduced.

Consumers have a part to play in the solution as well. The Food Empowerment Project advises consumers to buy bananas produced with less exploitation. They recommend buying from Equal Exchange. Bananas from small farmer-owned cooperatives are available in some parts of the United States. Look for bananas from Coliman, Earth University, and Organics Unlimited/Grow. “If your grocery stores do not carry these brands of bananas, we encourage you to ask them to,” says the Food Empowerment Project.

Consumers should make their voices heard: the sweetest banana is a child-labor-free banana.

Ellie Murphy is a rising junior at Tufts University, majoring in International Relations and Sociology.

Farmworkers and COVID: ‘A ticking time bomb’

It’s been referred to as a “ticking time bomb,” the coronavirus and its potential impact on farmworkers—the incredibly hard-working men, women, and children who pick our fruits and vegetables and provide other essential agricultural work. Farmworkers are notoriously underpaid for dirty, back-breaking work and now face great risk from COVID-19.

Farmworker advocacy groups that National Consumers League (NCL) works with or supports—such as Farmworker Justice, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the United Farmworkers of America (UFW), the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and a national cadre of legal aid attorneys—have spent recent months strategizing about ways to protect this community that is especially vulnerable to the virus.

Farmworkers are poor, with extremely limited access to health care and, due to their poverty, often report to work despite illness. The risks of an outbreak are especially great because workers often toil in close physical proximity to one another as they harvest, ride to the fields in crowded buses and cars, have limited access to sanitary facilities, including hand-washing, and often live in overcrowded, dilapidated housing.

Despite their essential contributions to the economy, farmworkers have been cut out of the emergency relief packages. The Trump Administration has even revealed plans to lower pay for agricultural guest workers who sacrifice home and family to come to the United States to perform arduous farm labor. Advocates fear that decreasing guest worker wages would drive down wages for farmworkers already living and working in the United States.

The majority of farmworkers are immigrants from Mexico or are the children of Mexican immigrants, often socially isolated from mainstream America. Poverty forced many farmworkers to leave school at an early age. It also causes them to bring their children to work in the fields so that child labor can supplement their meager incomes. Language and cultural barriers further their isolation. NCL, through the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), which it founded and co-chairs, continues to work to close the loopholes in labor laws that allow children in agriculture to work at early ages—often 12—and to begin performing hazardous work at age 16.

“When the virus began to move into America’s rural areas, many socially- and culturally-isolated farmworkers hadn’t heard about the virus,” said Reid Maki, director of child labor issues and coordinator of the CLC. “Some were confused that the grocery store shelves were empty and that the bottled water they usually buy suddenly cost much more. In some cases, farmworkers are not being told about the virus or the need to take special precautions while working.”

Farmworkers face an alarming dearth of protective equipment. Many farmworkers groups, are urgently racing to provide masks and other protective gear.

A farmworker with COVID-19 is unlikely to know he or she has it and, therefore, very likely to keep working and infect their family and coworkers. Recently, a growers group tested 71 tree fruit workers in Wenatchee, WA. Although none of the workers were showing symptoms of COVID-19, more than half tested positive!

Concerned about these developments, the CLC wrote letters in May to several appropriators and the Committee on Agriculture, asking for additional nutritional and childcare resources for farmworker families.

Box: How to get involved

  • Sign the Food Chain Workers Alliance to urge Congress to include resources for food chain workers.
  • Sign UFW’s petition urging Congress to stop Trump Administration efforts to lower wages for agricultural guest workers.
  • Make masks and send them to farmworker groups in your state.
  • Urge congressional representatives to fund farmworker relief efforts.

It’s time for U.S. tobacco companies to protect all child tobacco workers

Reid Maki is the director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League and he coordinates the Child Labor Coalition.

In 2014, under pressure from advocacy groups like the Child Labor Coalition and Human Rights Watch (HRW), several tobacco companies operating in the United States announced they would only buy tobacco from growers who agree not to hire children under 16 to work in contact with tobacco plants.

The child rights and human rights groups had been pushing for a ban on all children—aged 17 and below—from harvesting tobacco because of health problems related to nicotine exposure. These negative health impacts were well-documented in Tobacco’s Hidden Children, a report from HRW published in May 2014.

“Children interviewed by Human Rights Watch in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia frequently described feeling seriously, acutely sick, while working in tobacco farming,” noted HRW. “For example, Carla P., 16, works for hire on tobacco farms in Kentucky with her parents and her younger sister. She told Human Rights Watch she got sick while pulling the
tops off tobacco plants: ‘I didn’t feel well, but I still kept working. I started throwing up. I was throwing up for like 10 minutes, just what I ate. I took a break for a few hours, and then I went back to work.’

Another child worker interviewed by HRW, Emilio R., a 16-year-old seasonal worker in eastern North Carolina, said he had headaches that sometimes lasted up to two days while working in tobacco: “With the headaches, it was hard to do anything at all. I didn’t want to move my head.”

Some children describe the flu-like symptoms of nicotine poisoning as “feeling like I was going to die.”

HRW researchers found that “many of the symptoms reported by child tobacco workers are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, known as Green Tobacco Sickness, an occupational health risk specific to tobacco farming that occurs when workers absorb nicotine through their skin while having prolonged contact with tobacco plants.” Dizziness, headaches, nausea, and vomiting are the most common symptoms of acute nicotine poisoning. Three-quarters of the children interviewed by HRW in the report noted the onset of health symptoms when they began tobacco work, and many of those symptoms correlated with nicotine absorption.

U.S. child labor law is of no help in dealing with this problem. American law has exemptions for agriculture that allow children who are only 12 to work unlimited hours on farms as long as they are not missing school.

In 2014, the tobacco companies agreeing to protect the youngest child workers seemed like an important step forward. But six years later, we have concerns that the voluntary ban is not working.

Farmworker communities have proven particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. With schools closed for the summer and many parents sick, we fear that the number of children from desperately poor farmworker families who seek jobs on tobacco farms may increase.

Over the last six years, partner organizations in North Carolina have told us that younger children are still working in tobacco fields.

A recent health impacts study on child farmworkers in North Carolina (“Latinx child farmworkers in North Carolina: Study design and participant baseline characteristics” in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, November 28, 2018) by researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine reported data that suggests children under 16 continue to work in tobacco
fields.

In 2017, the first year Wake Forest researchers interviewed farmworker children—and three years after the tobacco companies’ voluntary age restriction, researchers interviewed 202 children and found 116 had worked tobacco in the week before the interview.

Yes, it’s just one study. But in the absence of federal and state data—which is notoriously poor when it comes to counting child farmworkers—it suggests that, in North Carolina, one of the four prime tobacco-growing states, nearly half of child tobacco workers are under 16. It confirms what we had been hearing anecdotally from farmworker groups in North Carolina: the
tobacco companies’ policy isn’t working.

Children in the United States are not allowed to perform work that has been labeled hazardous by the U.S. Department of Labor. You must be 18 to do dangerous work in all sectors except agriculture. This is an exemption that needs to end. Tobacco has not been labeled as dangerous work, even though everyone agrees that it is. That’s why the tobacco companies in
2014 said young children should not do it.

Children who are under 18 cannot buy cigarettes in a store, yet they are permitted to work 10 or 12 hour days in tobacco fields in stifling heat, breathing nicotine though the air, and absorbing it through their skin. Many children are so desperate to avoid contact with the plants that they work in black garbage backs with holes cut out for their arms and legs.

Efforts to pass federal legislation, the Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act, could fix this problem with a total ban on child labor in U.S. tobacco. Unfortunately, versions of the bill, in both the U.S. House and Senate, are not expected to pass any time soon. Child farmworkers, often poor and Latino, are often at the end of congressional priority lists.

American tobacco companies have had six years to try a piecemeal approach that is not working. We need tobacco companies to step up and do the right thing by banning child work in tobacco.

The death of Zohra Shah is a call for action: Child domestic servants must be protected

Reid Maki is the director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League and he coordinates the Child Labor Coalition.

Sometimes words fail.

This is the case when I read the story, “Couple torture and murder 8-year-old maid for letting parrots free, Pakistan police say”—about the death of Zohra Shah, a servant in the city of Rawalpindi in Punjab. Her employers beat the little girl into unconsciousness because she had accidently let a caged bird, or birds, go free—a startling metaphor for her situation, working as a child slave entrapped in the family’s house.

The police found many marks and bruises on the little girl’s body—some of them not new, including some that suggested to them that she may have been sexually assaulted as well. It isn’t hard to surmise that this Zohra’s life was a living hell.

Not all child servants around the world are abused, but it is fair to say that because they work in people’s homes—often invisibly to the public—they are extremely vulnerable to abuse. The International Labour Organizations estimates that around the world 7.5 million children under 15 work as domestic servants.

According to the report in the online newspaper The Independent, the girl’s uncle had hired her out. ‘“The couple had promised her uncle that they would provide her education and pay a salary of R[upee]s 3000 per month (£16). But they neither gave her education nor paid salary,” a spokesperson said.’

Imagine essentially buying a child for $20 a month to be a live-in maid and then refusing to even pay that paltry sum or allow the child to exercise their universal human right to education. Unfortunately, many children are lured away with promises of wages and schooling that never materialize. Parents who are often in distant rural villages are unable to ever find them or re-establish contact.

Child domestic servants are often excluded from protective child labor laws that internationally set minimum age work laws at 14 or 15, depending upon how developed the country’s economy is. If most children under 14 cannot work, why is there an exception for domestic servants?

Zohra’s death is one of several alarming cases of abuse of child domestic servants that have occurred in Pakistan and other South Asian nations in recent years. The Independent report noted: “A judge and his wife in the capital city of Islamabad were sentenced to one year jail term in 2018 for keeping their ten-year-old maid in wrongful confinement, burning her hand over a missing broom, [and] beating her with a ladle…” In 2019, 16-year-old Uzma Bibi, another domestic servant in Pakistan, was murdered and her employers accused of the crime.

Zohra’s death has sparked outrage in Pakistan and around the world. Pakistani celebrities, including actor Osman Khalid Butt, have called for adding domestic servants to protective minimum age laws. “If we want change beyond #JusticeforZohra, we need to raise our collective voice to amend our child labor laws,” he tweeted. “Child labor is child abuse. We have another case like Zohra Shah. We cannot allow for our outrage to fade till our laws are amended to protect the rights of children, sans any loophole.”

The Child Labor Coalition (CLC) joins this call, urging the government of Pakistan to add domestic work to minimum age protections. The CLC will be holding a World Day Against Child Labor Facebook Live event on June 12, which will feature Evelyn Chumbow, an advocate against child and human trafficking who was lured to the United States to do domestic work as a teenager. She found herself virtually imprisoned and subjected to abuse. It took her years to win her freedom. Please join us at 1:00 pm EDT on June 12 for this compelling event, which will also feature victims of forced marriage and child labor.

The Child Labor Coalition is co-chaired by the National Consumers League and the American Federation of Teachers and consists of 38 child rights, human rights, labor rights and environmental groups, including Beyond Borders, which does excellent work in Haiti protecting domestic workers.

New study confirms what we already knew: child labor in agriculture is dangerous

Reid Maki is the director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League and he coordinates the Child Labor Coalition.

There is some welcome but scary new research out about the impact of child labor on child farmworkers. At an online meeting of the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), co-chaired by the National Consumers League, last week, we heard from two researchers at the Wake Forest School of Medicine who told us about findings that came from a survey their team had conducted involving 202 child farmworkers between the ages of 10 and 17 in North Carolina. The child laborers worked in about a dozen crops, but most recently in four: tobacco, berries, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes—with tobacco being the most common by a large margin.

Alarming to the many of the advocates in the room, Dr. Thomas Arcury, director of the Center for Worker Health at Wake Forest, said that the survey results revealed a “substantial number of injuries” reported in the prior year. Two-thirds reported an injury of some kind, while more than a quarter of child workers  had suffered an injury the researchers considered traumatic during the year. Nearly a quarter had cut themselves in the fields, and muscular-skeletal injuries were common—shoulder pain being the most typical—as were dermatological injuries, which included rashes, burns, and sunburns.

Only 4.5 percent of injured workers received medical care. The same percent missed school because of their injuries. A higher percentage switched to different or easier tasks due to their injury.

The injuries were more commonly reported by older workers, migrant workers, and children who had worked fewer weeks. The reasons for higher injury rates for these types of workers can only be speculated at, suggested Arcury. Older workers may feel pressure to work at a faster pace, he speculated. Injured migrant children were much more likely to receive medical care by a large margin— 16.7 percent—versus 1.8 percent for non-migrant children. Similarly, they were more likely to miss school by a significant margin.

During Q&A, Dr. Arcury agreed with a question arguing that the “piece-rate” payment system (based on the idea that the more buckets of fruits or vegetables you fill and the faster you pick, the more you get paid) helps pressure workers to work to their maximum pace and was exploitative. “It’s absolutely inhumane,” he said.

Nearly half of the children in the survey suffered symptoms that correlated with heat-related illness, said fellow researcher Taylor Arnold, making it the primary negative aspect of doing farm work reported by the child survey respondents. Once again, older teens were more likely to report heat-related illness symptoms.

Nearly three in 10 reported dizziness from working in the heat. More than one in five reported sudden muscle cramps; one in 12 said they had nausea or vomited, 6.1 percent said they felt confused while working, and fainting was experienced by 1.8 percent.

In his presentation, Arnold quoted one 16-year-old describing tobacco work:

“Well it’s hot. It’s really hot, and you have to work with everybody’s pace so you won’t be left behind. And if you’re left behind, the boss man will like scream at you and just tell you to go faster or if not then he’s going to replace you with someone else.”

He quoted another 17-year-old tobacco worker who said her crew leader wouldn’t let her drink water despite the excessive heat. Another reported seeing a girl who had collapsed on the ground from heat.

A 15-year-old working in tomatoes told researchers:

“….sometimes…I feel like I’m really dizzy because of the sun. And there was – last year, the first day we got here, I got really, really dizzy. And I was going sideways. So I had to step out.”

The child workers said they engaged in numerous behaviors to avoid heat stress: they drank extra water, sought out shade, took extra breaks, changed work hours, went into air-conditioned areas (presumably breaks in automobiles), and changed work tasks. Of these, air-conditioned breaks seemed to have a contrary impact and was associated with suffering more heat-related symptoms, said Arnold. Those who reported taking more breaks had lower levels of heat-related illness. But, at times, there is a crew leader yelling at the workers to work harder and faster, so breaks are not exactly encouraged.

The presentation concluded with a recommendation that we at the CLC whole-heartedly agree with: Arcury supports closing the loopholes in U.S. child labor law that allow children to work at younger ages. “It’s hard to believe in 2020 that we have different rules for kids in farm work, despite it being such a hazardous sector,” he said.

The CLC works to advance federal legislation called the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety that would close these loopholes and extend legal protections to child workers in agriculture that are enjoyed by children who work in other sectors. We urge readers to call their Member of Congress and ask them to support CARE, H.R. 3394, by co-sponsoring it.

We also support legislation—appropriately named the Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act—that would ban work by children in tobacco fields because of the risk of nicotine poisoning. Many children interviewed by Human Rights Watch in a study published in 2014 reported symptoms that correlated with nicotine poisoning. We ask readers to call their Member of Congress and urge them to co-sponsor H.R. 3229 in the House and S. 1283 in the Senate.

The new research by Tom Arcury and Taylor Arnold and their colleagues confirms our belief that agriculture is simply too dangerous a sector to have widespread exemptions to U.S. child labor law. The researchers found children as young as 10 working in conditions that are clearly dangerous. Let’s close those loopholes now and give child farmworkers the same protections that all other children enjoy.

Florence Kelley and women’s suffrage at the National Archives

Today the National Consumers League staff is visiting the exhibit at the National Archives entitled Rightfully Hers: American Women and the VoteAs many are aware, 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in the United States. In 1920, American democracy dramatically expanded when the newly ratified 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited the states from denying the vote on the basis of sex.  

As the exhibit notes, “The U.S. Constitution as drafted in 1787 did not specify eligibility requirements for voting. It left that power to the states. Subsequent constitutional amendments and Federal laws have gradually restricted states’ power to decide who votes. But before 1920, the only constitutional restriction prohibited states from barring voters on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude. States’ power to determine voter eligibility made the struggle for women’s voting rights a piecemeal process.” So the 19th Amendment was critically important because we no longer had to rely on states to grant women the right to vote. It became mandatory.

The National Consumers League, led by the towering reformer Florence Kelley, was a leading voice for women’s suffrage long before ratification of the 19th Amendment. In February 1898, Kelley wrote a paper entitled “The Working Woman’s Need of the Ballot,” which was read at hearings on “the philosophy of the [women’s suffrage] movement.

As Kathryn Kish Sklar points out in her biography of Kelley – Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Workconducted by the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Women’s Suffrage: “No one needs all the powers of the fullest citizenship more urgently than the wage-earning woman …. Since she was “cut off from the protection awarded to her sisters abroad” but had no power “to defend her interests at the polls.” Kelley argued this impaired her standing in the community and lowered “her value as a human being and consequently as a worker.”

Florence Kelley and her fellow Progressive Era reformers led the fight for women’s suffrage in speeches, reports, and testimony before Congress. We thank them for their bravery and refusal to back down in the face of brutal opposition from many forces and we celebrate with them this 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment as we enjoy and take in all that this exhibit has to offer. Thanks to the National Archives and our dear friend Professor Robyn Muncy of the University of Maryland, who co-curated the exhibit with the Archives’ Corinne Porter.