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.”

In memoriam: Karen Ferguson, pension champion

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

America lost a renowned pension advocate and lifelong public interest lawyer recently with the death of Pension Rights Center founder Karen Ferguson.

Karen formed the Center in 1976 and, along with devoted board and staff, led the battle to protect the rights of workers entitled to pensions when their retirement funds were placed in jeopardy. All who knew Karen couldn’t help be moved by her deep intelligence, kindness and passion for pension rights and protections.

Ferguson and I met in 1981 when I was between jobs and awaiting bar results. I cold-called the Pension Rights Center and offered my services as a volunteer; she could not have been nicer to this stranger calling from out of the blue. She welcomed my help and introduced me to her right-hand, Karen Friedman, who became a dear friend. Yin and yang, the two Karens, fondly known as K1 and K2, were a dynamic duo that have shaped federal pension laws and policies for nearly half a century.

I was awed by Karen Ferguson’s brainpower. As a young lawyer, I observed her interactions with staff, policymakers on Capitol Hill, and federal agencies administering pension protections in the complicated but critically important law, Employee Rights Income Security Act (ERISA), adopted in 1974. ERISA was still in its infancy when PRC was launched. The Pension Rights Center and Ferguson were the one place that could be counted on to have the workers’ backs, bringing intellectual heft and a deep understanding of ERISA to any debate. When truckers’ pensions were in jeopardy, the PRC led the fight, spending seven years working the halls of Congress — with support from the AFL-CIO and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters — to secure millions of pensions for workers and retirees under the Butch Lewis Emergency Pension Relief Act.

A graduate of Bryn Mawr College and Harvard Law School, Ferguson was also instrumental in achieving special resources to enable workers to understand and secure their pensions, pushing strongly for the Pension Counseling and Information Program under the Older Americans Act.

Working women, men, and retirees lost a unique voice this week with the sad news of the death of Pension Rights Center founder and champion, Karen Ferguson. RIP, Karen. Your legacy lives on.

During ‘Striketober,’ standing up for a USPS that benefits consumers and workers

By Eden Iscil, Public Policy Associate

Workers across America are taking action to hold employers accountable for low pay and poor working conditions. In what’s being called “Striketober,” 10,000 John Deere employees, 14,000 Kellogg’s workers, and 24,000 Kaiser Permanente staff have gone on strike. Additionally, 60,000 film and television workers belonging to IATSE threatened to withhold their labor, resulting in a deal for more favorable contracts. At NCL, we support workers advocating for better conditions and compensation. 

While it is generating fewer headlines, the actions of US Postal Service employees are just as important for consumer and worker welfare. Recent postal worker employee protests in Minneapolis highlight the indispensable public service these workers provide to millions of Americans daily. Those protests were prompted by a visit from Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who is infamous for his 2020 attempt to degrade mail services at the same time that COVID-19 necessitated mail-in voting for millions of Americans. Importantly, DeJoy has come under renewed scrutiny for his 10-year plan, which would lead to significantly delayed mail deliveries. 

Given the importance of delivering mail promptly, we urge Congress and the Biden Administration to take a more active role in preventing Postmaster General DeJoy’s continued attacks on the Postal Service. Millions of Americans rely on the Postal Service for delivery of life-saving medication, receipt of their veterans and Social Security checks, and other important mail. Unfortunately, the impacts of DeJoy’s 10-year plan are likely to disproportionately affect rural communities and older Americans.   

We know such policies are harmful to everyday Americans from the many times they were previously attempted. Following DeJoy’s plans for a mail slowdown in 2020, veterans were forced to find alternative access to their medications and 350 million pieces of mail were delayed. We need to challenge such regressive policies that are implemented at an enormous cost to consumers. 

The threat that DeJoy’s recommendations pose to efficient U.S. mail delivery has been known since the summer of 2020. Congress and the Administration must act to get USPS back on the right track. 

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.

NCL applauds U.S. Department of Labor’s withdrawal of the Trump Administration’s ‘Independent Contractor Rule’

May 6, 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, welcomes yesterday’s withdrawal of the Trump Administration’s “Independent Contractor Rule,” which would have too narrowly defined who is an “employee” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

“The Trump Administration’s ‘Independent Contractor Rule’ would have been bad for American workers, especially women and those who toil in low-wage industries. It would have made it easier to classify workers like construction workers, farmworkers, Uber- and Lyft- drivers, janitors, and care givers as ‘independent contractors,’ denying them the rights and benefits ’employees’ have. It would have left workers already vulnerable to wage theft and safety risks even more at risk,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg.

In its announcement about the impending rule’s withdrawal, the U.S. Department of Labor noted that the FLSA requires employees be paid “at least the federal minimum wage for every hour they work and overtime compensation at not less than one-and-one half times their regular rate of pay for every hour over 40 in a work week.” Withdrawing the new rule preserves these essential worker rights and other protections granted by the FLSA.

DOL rightfully noted that independent contractor designations are not necessary to provide workers with flexible hours—something proponents of the new rule had suggested. “Employment and flexibility are not mutually exclusive,” said DOL.

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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.

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.

Child labor’s public perception problem

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

There are a lot of obstacles to ending child labor that the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) and its nearly 40 members confront on a daily basis. Poverty, governmental indifference, educational access, and a lack of awareness of the long-term impact of child labor on children are all big factors, but another is lack of knowledge of the scope or prevalence of the problem. The average American consumer doesn’t understand that child labor is a pervasive problem affecting an estimated 152 million children in the world—and that’s an estimate developed before the pandemic started. We think the number has grown significantly since COVID started throwing hundreds of millions of families into deeper poverty.

We became aware of the gap between the public’s perception of the problem and the reality of the situation seven years ago when the group Child Fund International commissioned a survey of over 1,000 consumers. Only one percent knew that roughly 150 million children were trapped in child labor globally. Even more disturbing: 73 percent of respondents—essentially three out of four—incorrectly guessed that the global total was less the one million. They were off by a factor of 150!

It’s hard to galvanize public and political opinion to confront a pressing social problem when few people realize the massive scope of the problem and instead misperceive it as a tiny, moribund problem. If we want corporations that benefit from child labor to take serious action, we need a better understanding of the problem’s prevalence. Governments are not likely to act or expend financial resources on programs to fix a problem perceived as affecting very few children.

We’ve been wondering if the Internet and Twitter have helped close the perception gap in the several years since Child Fund’s polling. Surveys are expensive and our budget didn’t allow us to conduct a phone-based survey like the 2013 poll. So, we decided to use a Survey Monkey internet poll to see where the public’s perception levels were at. We conducted the poll before COVID struck.

We gave respondents the opportunity to guess how many children were impacted by child labor and offered the following choices:

  • 1 in 10
  • 1 in 100
  • 1 in 500
  • 1 in 1,000
  • 1 in 5,000
  • 1 in 50,000

The most popular answer was the correct one: “1 in 10.” Thirty-five percent guessed correctly that 10 percent of the world’s children toil in child labor. However, that means that roughly two out of three respondents were off by a factor of 10 or more.

We think the answers in our informal internet poll may have skewed toward a better knowledge of the problem because we advertised the survey on our Twitter (@ChildLaborCLC), meaning it was being seen by people who presumably had better knowledge about child labor than the random public. With two-thirds of the public off by a factor of 100 or more, we know we still have a lot of work to do to close the perception gap.

In the last decade, the CLC has posted nearly 11,000 tweets to increase public understanding that child labor is a widespread and pernicious problem. We’re also active on Facebook (@ChildLaborCoalition) and our website (stopchildlabor.org) generates about 100,000 visits a year.

Those efforts don’t seem to be enough and we could use your help in the fight to end child labor. Please follow our posts and share them. Be a warrior in the fight to end child labor!

Remember that Child Fund International poll in 2013 we started with? The good news revealed in that survey was that more than half (55 percent) of the respondents said they would pay more for clothing made without child labor. They said they would pay 34 percent more on average for clothing untainted by child labor! According to cleanclothes.org, labor costs are typically less than 3 percent of clothing costs. Ending child labor would not raise prices significantly.

Garments are just one of 150 products identified by the U.S. Department of Labor “Sweat and Toil” app as being produced with child labor. If consumers are willing to pay more for child labor free clothing, they are likely to pay more for all products without child exploitation. That’s very encouraging.

The Child Labor Coalition is co-chaired by the National Consumers League and the American Federation of Teachers. Consumers who wish to donate to help reduce child labor can do so here.

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.

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.

Keeping meatpacking workers safe in the age of COVID-19: A view from the front lines

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

Meatpacking plants across America have become hot spots for COVID-19. Many plants have had to close due to the rapid increase in cases, with hundreds of workers contracting COVID-19 and a tragic number dying from the deadly virus.

Many packing plants have reopened over the past couple of weeks but the question still remains:  what measures have been put in place to address working conditions?

We interviewed someone who has firsthand knowledge of what is happening on the inside.  Robyn Robbins is the director of occupational health and safety at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). She has worked for UFCW for the past 24 years and prior to this position she was the Assistant Director for 18 years. UFCW is one of the largest labor unions in America. The Union represents workers in meatpacking, poultry, food processing industry, retail grocery, and healthcare—all considered to be essential workers.

Robbins told us: “Many workers are getting sick and dying, and the industry has a history of exploiting workers.” Indeed, the meat industry does not have an admirable record on protecting workers from hazards long before COVID-19. Meatpacking plants on average can employ up to 5,000 workers under one roof, and the conditions are very challenging.  Workers work closely on production lines, sometimes “shoulder to shoulder,” and the areas where they congregate off the line—such as break rooms and locker rooms—can get crowded.  The virus can spread quite easily under these conditions. And the industry has not done enough to allow workers to socially distance both on the production floor and off, or to notify the union when workers are infected, and who else has been exposed, so that the spread of the virus can be contained.

Even amid the pandemic, the demand for meat and poultry is constant. As a result, meatpacking plants have reopened, albeit not at full capacity.  Robbins noted that OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)—the federal agency that regulates safety and healt—has taken a backseat and has not done on-site inspections. “There are no safety standards that regulate COVID-19 and no clear requirements or regulations that companies are required to follow and therefore there is no way to force companies to actually take precautionary measures recommended by the CDC to protect workers,” Robbins said. She went onto say that “OSHA is the only Federal government entity that can require companies to do anything to protect workers during this pandemic.”

UFCW local union representatives and stewards are in the plants and work hard to get companies to do the right thing to protect workers through the collective bargaining process. “The challenge is trying to get the companies to space workers out on the production floor, which does require some slowing down of line speeds; some of the companies are doing the right thing by spacing workers out but many are not, and are relying too much on protective equipment and plastic barriers, which have not been proven to offer any protection, when it is really about putting more distance between people,” Robbins told us. Social distancing in break rooms is another challenge. Companies have made some effort to effectively separate tables and are putting tents outside for workers to take breaks in those designated areas. They are also staggering shift times in order to reduce the number of workers in break areas at any one time.

Robbins noted: “not all companies are testing workers when they should be, which is a major problem.” UFCW is calling on meatpacking plants to test workers, but companies are reluctant. “If companies worked more closely with the union, they would collectively be able to come up with strategies to isolate workers, redistribute the work, and be more effective over all in addressing the issues relating to COVID-19 and meatpacking workers.”

UFCW doesn’t agree that reopening of plants should take place where there have been outbreaks and where unsafe working conditions exist, unless the companies have taken the steps necessary to protect workers from exposure to COVID-19. “The companies that did shut down made the right decision to sanitize and clean the plants,” said Robbins. “Some have also started screening workers, set up hand sanitizing stations, providing masks, spacing out common areas, giving workers face shields and putting up plastic barriers on the floor between workers where it is possible – although again, there is no data to show that plastic barriers do anything to stem the spread of the virus.”

But this is still not enough. UFCW wants to see workplaces reconfigured so that workers can be six feet apart, both on the production floor and off. This is crucial for stemming the spread of the virus.

Robbins said sick leave policies vary tremendously. “There are 500 local unions around the country, and the UFCW has been pushing for 14 days’ sick leave, successfully bargaining for this in contracts. Some companies are using a combination of different ways to allow workers to stay home when sick, many suspending their normal sick leave policy and making them more flexible. Some companies use a combination of paid sick days and short-term disability so that workers can stay home to recover and then return to work in a safe way. But not all companies are doing this; a few are even revoking paid sick leave policies that were in place at the beginning of this crisis.  This only will result in sick workers coming to work, because they have to in order to earn a living, and the virus will continue to spread, both inside plants, and outside in their communities.  It is bad corporate policy.”

Due to the thousands of cases of COVID-19 in meatpacking plants and many plants not operating at full capacity, meat shortages may continue. In closing, we so appreciate UFCW representing worker interests and Robyn Robbins’ service on NCL’s Board of Directors.