NCL’s Child Labor Coalition praises the Biden Administration’s proposed rule to protect indoor and outdoor workers from extreme heat

July 3, 2024

Media contact: National Consumers League – Melody Merin, melodym@nclnet.org, 202-207-2831

WASHINGTON, DC – The Child Labor Coalition (CLC) strongly supports the Biden Administration’s proposed rule to protect indoor and outdoor workers from extreme heat. The U.S. Department of Labor announced the rule on July 2. The CLC is chaired by the National Consumers League (NCL) and has 37 organizational members, including numerous farmworker organizations and nonprofits. Both the CLC and NCL are members of the national Heat Stress Network, organized by Public Citizen.

Read the full proposed rule.

While the proposed rule does not recommend age-specific guidelines for child or teen workers, they would benefit greatly from OSHA-mandated heat-related safety protections. Extreme heat can lead to heat stroke, injuries, illnesses, and even death.

Exemptions to U.S. child labor law allow children in agriculture to work at age 12, and, in some cases, even younger, and those exemptions allow them to work unlimited hours, when school is not in session.

Reid Maki, director of child labor advocacy at the Child Labor Coalition, emphasizes the dire conditions faced by outdoor workers: “Farm workers perform physical labor in high heats without the benefit of shade. They work long hours under the hot sun with temperatures well exceeding 90 degrees, sometimes over 100 degrees without a break. They risk passing out, heat stroke, and death. We are most worried about children and teens. There is no doubt that putting rules in place will save lives.”

“President Biden and Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su have taken an important first step,” says Maki. “The proposed rule provides a pivotal opportunity to have a national conversation and develop comprehensive OSHA regulations to protect workers across many industries. We strongly urge the Department to add specific protections for children working in agriculture. We know that children are at increased risk of heat illness.”

The Protect Indoor and Outdoor Workers from Extreme Heat rule proposes several critical measures to address worker safety:

  1. Heat Risk Evaluation: Employers would be required to evaluate heat risks and develop comprehensive plans to mitigate these risks, especially when temperatures exceed 90 degrees.
  2. Rest Breaks and Hydration: Mandatory rest breaks and access to drinking water are key components to ensure workers stay safe and hydrated.
  3. Acclimatization Protocol: Employers must develop protocols to help new employees or those returning from vacation or sick leave adjust to the heat during their first week back.
  4. Heat Illness and Emergency Response Plan: This includes appointing individuals to implement heat emergency procedures, instructions for transporting affected employees to emergency medical facilities, and procedures for responding to signs of heat-related illness or heat stroke.

The proposed rule extends to indoor work environments as well, ensuring that workers in hot indoor settings are also protected. However, the proposed rule specifically excludes professions such as firefighters and emergency response teams.

Employers would also be required to provide training, implement procedures to respond to heat-related illnesses and take immediate action to assist workers experiencing symptoms of heat emergencies.

Summer heatwaves are upon us, and while many of us retreat to air-conditioned spaces, countless workers endure the blistering sun and soaring temperatures. For those laboring in the fields, on construction sites, and in other outdoor environments, extreme heat can be deadly. Record-breaking temperatures across the United States create life-and-death situations for outdoor workers, and each year, thousands of workers suffer from heat-related illnesses and hundreds die.

Whether working indoors or outdoors in high heat, the signs and symptoms of heat-related illness are the same and include weakness, dizziness, headaches, nausea, fevers, overheating, and muscle cramps. According to the Mayo Clinic, workers are encouraged to exercise caution when temperatures are between 80 and 90 degrees (Fahrenheit) and extreme caution when they are between 90-103 degrees. Temperatures higher than that are considered dangerous.

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

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 nclnet.org.

Child Labor Coalition lauds Wage and Hour’s Child Labor Enforcement Strategies that includes creating a fund for victims and use of “hot goods” provisions

March 27, 2024

Media contact: National Consumers League – Reid Maki, reidm@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2820

Washington, DC – The Child Labor Coalition (CLC), representing 37 groups engaged in the fight against domestic and global child labor, expresses support for the innovative enforcement strategies in this week’s enforcement action by the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). The action, announced March 25th, involved fines of $296,951 for a Tennessee parts manufacturer, Tuff Torq, and required the company to set aside $1.5 million as “disgorgement” of 30 days’ profit related to the company’s use of child labor. Disgorgement is a legal term for remedy requiring a party that profits from illegal activity to give up any profits that result from that activity.

Tuff Torq, which makes components for outdoor, power-equipment brands such as John Deere, Toro, and Yamaha, illegally employed 10 children, including a 14-year-old, for work that was hazardous—an identified task involved permitting a child to operate a power-driven-hoisting apparatus, which is a prohibited occupational task.

The Department employed several new or recent strategies in the case, including employing the Fair Labor Standards Act’s “hot goods” provision, which was used to stop the shipment of goods made with oppressive child labor.

“The use of the ‘hot goods’ enforcement tool is also an important new strategy, which Wage and Hour announced it would use last year,” said Reid Maki, director of Child Labor Advocacy for the National Consumers League (NCL) and the CLC. “It’s another critical tool in DOL’s arsenal. Once companies realize that the shipment of goods has been stopped, they feel an immediate impact of the violation.”

“This is the first use of victim’s fund that we have noticed in a child labor enforcement action,” added Maki. “Teens employed in factory settings are often unaccompanied minors and typically very impoverished. When enforcement agents find teens working illegally, they are dismissed with no resources to survive, move forward, and reassemble their lives. A victim’s fund is something the CLC and the Campaign to End US Child Labor – the CLC is a founding member – has touted as desperately needed.”

A third innovation involves how DOL calculates child labor fines. DOL recently announced it planned to change formulas for calculating fines, which previously had been capped at $15,000 per child involved in violations at a specific work site. The new strategy involves applying the maximum fines for each violation, not limited to the number of children involved.

“It’s clear they have used the new formula in the Tuff Torq fines,” said Maki. “Fines levels came in at an average of $30,000 per child—almost double what we would have seen under the old formula. With Congress unable, at this point, to pass into law any of several bills that would increase fines by a factor of ten, DOL’s creativity here is most welcome. Fines must be raised to inflict some real pain on corporate perpetrators. We’re not where we want to be yet, but it’s good to inch closer.”

“Wage and Hour also deserves praise for directing its enforcement action at Tuff Torq,” noted Maki. “In the past, corporations that benefited from child labor have often not been held accountable, as they blamed staffing agencies for illegal hires. Holding beneficiaries accountable is something DOL said it would do when it announced its meatpacking investigation results in February 2023—it’s great to see it happening.”

The Wage and Hour Division faces a big challenge in that its inspectorate, estimated at below 750 inspectors, is too small for a country the size of the U.S. The CLC has called for a doubling of the inspectorate over the next five years and is working to help increase congressional appropriations for that purpose.

Wage and Hour has noted a sharp increase in child labor in recent years, having found 5,792 minors working in violation of child labor laws. The Economic Policy Institute indicates the increase in violations is 300 percent since 2015.

“We are especially troubled by the prevalence of children in hazardous work,” said CLC Chair Sally Greenberg, who is also the CEO of the National Consumers League. “Far too many children are working illegally in meatpacking, auto supply factories, and other hazardous work sites. The U.S. can and must do more to protect these vulnerable children.”

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

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 nclnet.org.

National Consumers League condemns legislation in Florida that preempts local ordinances to protect workers from heat exposure

March 15, 2024

Media contact: National Consumers League – Melody Merin, melodym@nclnet.org, 202-207-2831

Washington, DC – The National Consumers League is condemning a vote by the Florida House of Representatives to approve legislation that will upend Miami-Dade’s proposed local workplace standards requiring drinking water, cooling measures, recovery periods, posting or distributing materials informing workers how to protect themselves, and requiring first aid or emergency responses. The Florida Senate approved the measure yesterday.

This measure rushed through the state legislature ahead of adjournment on Friday, March 8th and will prevent local governments throughout Florida from requiring water, shade breaks or training so workers can protect themselves from heat illness, injury, and fatality.

Reid Maki, director of child labor advocacy for the Child Labor Coalition under the National Consumers League, made this statement:

“Not only is the Florida legislature usurping the duty of local government to protect workers from heat stress in one of the hottest states in America, but by denying workers access to water and protection this Dickensian measure ignores the reality of heat and heatstroke among Florida’s workers. Indeed, hundreds of workers die across the U.S. from heat exposure each year. The legislation also forbids the posting of educational materials to help workers protect themselves from the heat.

NCL has throughout its history worked to eradicate child labor and abusive labor practices, including protecting children in America working in the fields from exposure to heat, dangerous chemicals, and long hours. U.S. law allows children to work at younger ages in the agricultural sector despite its significantly increased danger. It also allows teens to do work known to be dangerous at younger ages—16 versus 18. NCL works to close both of those loopholes and protect children from agricultural dangers and exploitation. These vulnerable teen workers in agriculture are at great risk from heat exposure.

NCL is urging Governor Ron DeSantis to veto this legislation. NCL also urges the United States Congress to enact the Asuncíon Valdivia Heat Illness, Injury and Fatality Prevention Act, which would direct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to adopt interim heat standards, while the agency continues its years-long slog of adopting a final heat protection rule. NCL is a member of the national Heat Stress Network, which works to protect outdoor works from heat dangers.

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

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 nclnet.org.

The Child Labor Coalition expresses alarm over the results of DOL’s investigation into child labor at meatpacking plants in the U.S. and calls for current protections to be enhanced, not weakened

February 21, 2023

Media contact: National Consumers League – Katie Brown, katie@nclnet.org(202) 823-8442

Washington, D.C. – The Child Labor Coalition, consisting of 39 organizational members who work to end exploitative child labor domestically and internationally, calls attention to today’s announcement by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) that its just-completed investigation found 102 children working in cleaning crews in 13 meatpacking plants in eight states. DOL levied a fine of $1.5 million in civil money penalties against Packer Sanitation Services, Inc. (PSSI).

The children often worked the graveyard shift and used caustic chemical agents while they cleaned meat processing equipment including backsaws, brisket saws and head splitters. DOL learned that three minors were injured while working for PSSI.

Sally Greenberg, chair of the Child Labor Coalition, publicly called for meatpacking plants to be investigated for underage worker in 2008 during a congressional hearing on child labor.

“While we applaud this seemingly robust investigation by U.S. DOL, we wonder why the meatpacking firms who benefited from illegal child labor are not being held liable,” said Reid Maki, who is the Child Labor Coalitions coordinator and the Director of Child labor Advocacy for U.S. DOL. “Firms like JBS Foods, Tyson Food, Cargill, Turkey Valley Farms and others, hired PSSI to do the cleaning but company employees witness underage workers performing hazardous work with dangerous chemicals and did nothing to stop it. Why aren’t these companies being punished?” he asked.

Maki noted that the fine amount is the legal maximum that DOL could assess in the case but $1.5 million is roughly one day’s revenue for a company like PSSI that has over $450 million in annual revenue. “We would really love to see maximum and minimum child labor fines increased, and we had discussions with Senator Schatz’s office about it this very week,” he noted.

Maki noted that the investigation results are well-timed because the state of Iowa is considering a reprehensible child labor bill that would allow children to work expanded hours and in hazardous work areas.

“Iowa bill S.F. 167 not only extends hours for teen work, it permits minors to work in highly hazardous areas like meatpacking loading docks and assembly areas,” said Maki. “It’s a cynical, dangerous bill that builds in liability waivers for employers against teen worker injuries that the legislative authors know will happen. We strongly oppose this bill.”

Other states, including Ohio and Minnesota, are considering bills to weaken hard-won child protections.

Maki also noted giant loopholes in U.S. child labor law that expose child workers on farms to great risks. “Our weak child labor laws allow kids who are only 12 to work unlimited hours on farms when school is not in session. We’ve met many 12-year-olds who work 70–80-hours a week in the summer and in stifling heat, performing back-breaking labor,” explained Maki. “A teen worker has to be 18 to perform hazardous work in the U.S. but in agriculture they only need to be 16,” he added.

“The presence of young children in farm work, makes it critical that U.S.DOL begin enhancing hazardous work rules for child workers in agriculture,” said Maki. “DOL succumbed to political pressure when it scuttled needed protections over a decade ago and since then has refused to honor its responsibility to protect kids from known work dangers.”

We have also been waiting for DOL to protect child tobacco workers who regularly become ill from nicotine absorption and poisoning, noted Maki. “You must be 21 to buy cigarettes in the U.S., why does U.S. law allow tobacco growers to hire 12-year-olds to harvest this toxic crop? DOL needs to do more to protect these vulnerable workers.”

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)
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 nclnet.org.

National Consumers League applauds Biden Administration’s new heat stress initiative

September 24, 2021

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Reid Maki, reidm@nclnet.org(202) 207-2820

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League (NCL), America’s pioneering consumer and worker advocacy organization, celebrates the White House announcement on September 20 of a new multi-agency effort to protect American workers from heat-related illnesses. The initiative includes the launch of a process to create a federal heat standard to protect workers.

The administration’s actions will add protections for outdoor workers in agriculture and construction, as well as for delivery workers, and will cover indoor workers in warehouses, factories, and kitchens.

NCL and the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), which it co-chairs with the American Federation of Teachers, have long supported efforts to develop a federal heat standard. NCL and the CLC have been active in a large coalition of groups led by Public Citizen, Farmworker Justice, and the United Farm Workers Foundation, that has been calling for greater protections from heat-related occupations.

The following statement may be attributed to NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg:

“Heat stress endangers millions of workers, and a federal heat standard is long overdue. We’re grateful that the Biden Administration has responded robustly with this comprehensive, multi-agency initiative. Heat stress affects low-wage workers and people of color disproportionately. The COVID pandemic has reminded us how essential millions of American workers are, and this summer’s searing temperatures demonstrate the need for increased protections. When this effort is completed, countless American workers will be safer than they are today.”

The following statement may be attributed to NCL Director of Child Labor Advocacy, and CLC Coordinator Reid Maki:

“NCL and the CLC have tried for decades to protect child farmworkers, whose back-breaking work in the fields puts them and their families at higher risk of heat-related illnesses. Children are more vulnerable to heat illness than adults; they have a greater surface area to body mass ratio, they sweat less, and their rate of acclimatization is slower.

Weak U.S. child labor laws for the agricultural sector allow an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 children to work unlimited hours on farms, often beginning at the age of 12—as long as the child farmworker is not missing school attendance. In some instances, exemptions allow even younger children to perform farm work. The CLC has been working to close those loopholes and protect the health and safety of child farmworkers for over two decades.

The Biden Administration’s heat stress initiative will address the factors that create social vulnerabilities and disproportionate impacts. The initiative will also provide cooling assistance to households, allow the use of schools as cooling centers, add tree cover to reduce urban heat, and launch related measures such a “heat resilience challenge.”

“NCL thanks the U.S. Department of Labor and other involved agencies for this bold action and applauds the many advocacy groups, farmworker organizations, unions, and other colleagues in the Heat Stress Network, who have fought to bring about these protections,” said Greenberg.

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.

National consumer organization throwing support behind three major labor rights bills in Congress

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, founded in 1899 to advance the needs of consumers and workers, is backing three important federal bills aiming to even the playing field between workers and employers. The three pieces of legislation—the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA), and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act—would strengthen labor laws and give workers greater opportunities to organize and form unions, protecting the most vulnerable in our labor force.

“Decades of industry lobbying have made it increasingly difficult for workers to organize,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “Employers enjoy unprecedented and unfair advantages during union organizing drives, which has led to far fewer opportunities for workers to make their voices heard in the workplace. NCL is pleased to support several legislative initiatives that would help right the course for America’s workers.”

According to a recent Gallup Poll, roughly two-thirds of Americans approve of unions—a number trending upwards up from about half in 2009.

“Consumers are recognizing that they are harmed when workers do not have a strong voice,” said Greenberg. “Industry abuses are more likely to go unchecked, resulting in unsafe and dangerous products making it to the marketplace. And when workers are fairly compensated on the job, they can afford to buy the products they create, stimulating further demand that benefits the economy.”

About the bills

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) would enhance collective bargaining rights, impose penalties on employers if they retaliate against workers who are trying to organize, and update labor laws to protect workers. The bill passed in the House of Representatives with bipartisan support this spring on a 225-206 vote. The bill currently awaits action in the Senate. Of 50 Democratic and independent Senators, 45 are currently committed to supporting the bill. If the Senate passes the bill, President Biden has pledged to sign it.

NCL strongly supports the PRO ACT and urges the Senate to swiftly pass this important measure.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA) passed the House October 30, 2019, and was the product of bipartisan negotiations between leading Democrats and Republicans to modernize laws and treat with dignity and fairness our 2.4 million farmworkers, half of whom are undocumented immigrants. On March 18, 2021, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, H.R. 1603, passed the House again by a bipartisan vote of 247-174, with 30 Republicans joining Democrats in support. H.R. 1603, like the earlier version of the legislation.

“America’s farms and food systems depend on immigrants who pick our crops. But because so many don’t have legal status, they live in fear of deportation and cannot challenge illegal or unfair treatment in their jobs or in their communities,” said Greenberg. “FWMA provides a path to lawful permanent residency for these workers. Under the bill’s provisions, farmworkers would be able to improve their wages and working conditions and seek enforcement when their rights are violated. It also makes America more food-secure by ensuring that farmers have workers to harvest their perishable crops.”

The FMWA is a pro-consumer, pro-worker, and pro-agriculture bill that NCL strongly supports. NCL urges the Senate to pass this legislation and send it to President Biden’s desk for his signature.

The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act (PSFNA, HR 3463 and S 1970), would set a minimum nationwide standard of collective bargaining rights that all states would have to provide to state and local workers.

There are nearly 17.3 million public sector workers across the country. Unlike private-sector workers, there is no federal law protecting the freedom of public sector workers to join a union and collectively bargain for fair wages, benefits, and improved working conditions.

Currently, 20 states do not provide all state and local public sector workers the ability to collectively bargain for fair wages and benefits.

Among the bill’s provisions is a requirement that public sector employers recognize labor unions chosen by a majority of the employees voting, and that they bargain with the labor organization over wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. If states fail to meet these standards, the bill gives the federal government the authority to intervene on behalf of public-service workers, ensuring their rights to form a union and negotiate with their employer.

NCL strongly supports the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act and urges swift Congressional action in both the House and the Senate so that President Biden can sign the bill into law.

“America would be unrecognizable without the gains made by working families and unions,” said Greenberg. “The movement needs an even playing field to do its job. These three bills are a good start, and NCL is proud to support each of them.”

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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.

NCL supports Bessemer, AL Amazon workers’ right to organize

March 26, 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 has issued the following statement:

Since our founding in 1899, the National Consumers League (NCL) has supported the right of workers to organize and form unions. In our fight for labor and consumer protections, our work has continued to champion these fundamental rights.

In keeping with that mission, NCL is aware of the efforts of workers at the Amazon plant in Bessemer, AL to form a union and supports the workers’ right to do so. The employees are seeking a stronger voice in controlling the pace of work, productivity expectations, and other matters such as breaks and concerns about physical demands.

We have partnered with Amazon on issues of great import to consumers, including fighting fraud and supporting financial literacy for teens and appreciate the company’s dedication to those concerns and its pledge to support a $15 an hour minimum wage nationally, not only for its workforce but for every hourly worker. President Biden has called the Bessemer, AL election a “vitally important choice” for workers. We agree and hope that Amazon honors that choice.

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

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.

The unsavory side of ‘Food with integrity’

After dozens of outbreaks of foodborne illness over the past four years, Chipotle gave lip service about reforms in their work practices, but the fast-casual restaurant has continued to engage in management practices that lead to abuses of workers that may create food safety risks for consumers. This was the message of a report jointly released by NCL and SEIU 32BJ in February, “The Unsavory Side of ‘Food with Integrity.’”

“The findings of this report call into question the effectiveness of measures that Chipotle put in place to solve their food safety crises of a few years ago,” said Sally Greenberg, NCL executive director. “If Chipotle executive management and the Food Safety Advisory Council are responsible for making sure that this program is implemented effectively to keep the public safe, they have been asleep at the wheel.”

Employees interviewed for the study reported extreme management pressure that led to:
workers being pressured to work while sick; undercooked chicken being served to customers by under-trained grill cooks; and workers being unable to take breaks to wash their hands for hours on end.

In April, NCL welcomed the news that the Department of Justice had imposed on the company the largest criminal fine ever for a food safety case but said the company needs to take additional action and reforms to address the core issues that are driving worker abuses and violations of food safety protocols.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has sickened many people across the United States, essential workers like those at Chipotle and other chains have risked their health and their lives to provide food to their communities. These workers say that long-standing issues at Chipotle are putting them at risk.

“I am glad that the Justice Department has held Chipotle accountable for their actions that have put people at risk,” said Luis Torres, a worker at a Chipotle store in Manhattan. “But even as recent as the beginning of March we had to walk off the job together to fight back against managers pressuring crewmembers to work sick while the Coronavirus crisis was escalating. We’re pressured to make the food faster and aren’t always allowed to take the proper safety precautions. We are speaking out because we just want to stay safe and keep our customers safe.”

The government’s announcement resonates with the report’s findings, including managers pressuring workers to work sick and violations of food safety protocol and Chipotle’s own policies. For example, many workers reported manager pressure not to wash their hands during rush periods so as not to slow the line.

The report also called attention to the ineffective food safety audits, which now must be improved per the deferred prosecution agreement. The food safety audits and Chipotle’s paid sick day policy were part of a set of reforms put in place in 2016 to win back the trust of Chipotle customers following earlier illness outbreaks at Chipotle but according to workers, audits only happen quarterly, meaning that once a store is audited, the manager knows they won’t get audited again until the next quarter.

“We applaud the work of US Attorney’s Office for working with the FDA and for holding Chipotle accountable with a substantial fine,” said Greenberg. “This should be a wake-up call for Chipotle. For years, its management incentive practices have put profits first, endangering the safety and health of customers and workers repeatedly. Now more than ever when food safety is so critical, Chipotle needs a massive overhaul of its management and business practices to put consumer and worker safety first.”

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.