Effort to pass legislation to protect farmworker children gathers steam – National Consumers League

by Reid Maki, Child Labor Coalition

This post originally ran in Media Voices for Children, an Internet news agency for children’s rights.

In November, I reminded folks that young children—children who are 12- and 13-years-old and even younger in some cases—harvest fruits and vegetables on many U.S. farms and that many of them are allowed to do so because of loopholes in U.S. child labor law that go back to the 1930s. Child advocates have been trying to close those loopholes for years, and today, I’m happy to report that the campaign is progressing well.

Last week, Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO) became the 68th member of Congress to cosponsor the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE), HR 3564, which would close the legal loopholes and apply the same child labor laws to all working children. The bill, introduced by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) in September, would preserve an exemption for family farmers so their children could help on the farm, but the children of migrant and seasonal farmworkers who work for wages would have to wait till they are at least 14 to work. The U.S. Department of Labor would evaluate the safety of agricultural jobs to determine if some can be performed by 14- and 15-year-olds. The CARE Act would also prohibit teens in agriculture from doing jobs recognized as very dangerous until they were 18—the age limit in all other industries.

Campaign organizers, including the 24 members of the Child Labor Coalition, the American Federation of Teachers, the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, Human Rights Watch, and First Focus Campaign for Children, are pleased that members of Congress from states with large farmworker communities have embraced the bill. Twenty members of the California delegation have cosponsored CARE. Texas, another state that is home to many migrant farmworkers, boasts seven members who have co-sponsored the bill. The Progressive Caucus has been incredibly supportive with 43 members co-sponsoring the legislation.

Efforts to gain support among advocacy groups are also gaining strength. To date, more than 50 groups have endorsed the CARE legislation, including all the national farmworker groups—Farmworker Justice, the United Farm Workers of America, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, the National Farmworker Ministry, Student Action with Farmworkers, the Migrant Clinician’s Network, Migrant Legal Action Program, the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association and the National Association of State Directors of Migrant Education have all endorsed the bill. It’s great to have such unanimity within the community.

In addition to the farmworker unions, several of America’s largest national unions have also endorsed CARE: the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, the Communications Workers of America, the Teamsters, the National Education Association, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, and the Laborer’s International Union of North America have said that CARE is needed to protect child farmworkers and help farmworker families escape the generational poverty that traps them.

Hispanic advocacy groups have also spoken as one. The National Council of La Raza, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Hispanic Federation, the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute, and MANA, a National Latina Organization have all given CARE an emphatic thumbs up.

Other advocacy groups that have endorsed the legislation include the American Association of University Women, Interfaith Worker Justice, the International Labor Rights Forum, the NAACP, the National Collaboration for Youth, the United States Student Association, and the National Organization for Women. We are so pleased that these groups have come together to support farmworker children. In the past, the plight of these kids has not gotten much national attention, but we were really pleased with the ABC News coverage

of these working children in November. The report, which appeared on Nightline, Good Morning America and the ABC World News, found several children under 12 in Michigan picking blueberries, including a 5-year-old. The children sometimes work till 9:00 p.m. One 11-year-old told reporters he was in his third year in the fields. Another small child talked about the danger when pesticides are sprayed nearby.

Josie Ellis, a nurse with Migrant Health, told Nightline that the fields in North Carolina, where she is based, are full of working children.

She noted that the kids acquire severe rashes, respiratory illnesses, and neurological impairments from their contact with pesticides. They also miss out on their childhoods because they are working long hours. “Play is something that migrant children know very little about. Work they know,” said Ellis. “We see frustration. We see really tired kids. We see depression in children….despair…the inability to dream…the inability to see past high school…the inability to see past junior high school….I think it’s shameful that our nation tolerates child labor,” added Ellis. We are told that NBC News is working on a piece that should appear sometime this spring.

The Children in the Fields Campaign organizers were also pleased that La Opinión, the nation’s largest circulation Spanish-language newspaper endorsed the CARE Act on September 26th: “The Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE) begins to correct legislation that harms primarily poor, Latino, and immigrant children and young people. There is no justification for permitting minors to work in the fields when it is unlawful for them to work in other types of employment under better conditions. Children of agricultural workers deserve the protection granted to all youth.”

One of the great things about being involved in a campaign like this is the amazing people you meet. In a prior blog, I spoke about Norma Flores, a young woman who spoke eloquently about her experiences in the fields and the many friends she worked with who became exhausted and overwhelmed by their work and dropped out of school. Now in her twenties and working on the Children in the Fields Campaign, Norma recalled her years as a child farmworker. “I hated it,” said Norma. “I hated to work in the fields. I hated getting sweaty and dirty. I hated getting blisters and cuts and sunburns. I hated finishing my row of work only to see there was no water to drink at the end. I hated to have to walk half a mile to go to a dirty portable toilet. I hated how the work affected me outside of the fields. I hated having to enroll in school late every year, to have to make up months of assignments and have to fight to get my school credits.”

Recently, I received moving testimony about working in the fields as a child from Julia Perez, who lives in Arizona and has also become a part of our movement to end this injustice:

My earliest memories start at the age of 5, when I was pulled out of school to start working in the strawberries in Oregon. We then headed to another labor camp in Idaho where I was handed a knife to start topping onions. I cut myself a lot, once really bad on my knee because as it turned out I needed glasses. My days consisted of early, wet, mornings starting at 4am and long 10-12 hrs days of work. This went on for 6 months a year in 10 different states. This was the end of my childhood. I was five, but my back and knees ached like an old person, I had scars from all the cuts, I hated the camps with bathrooms outside. We were so tired at the end of the day, we only showered once a week and mostly I didn’t want to miss school.

Julia noted that only one of her 20 nieces and nephews have gone to college. Child labor robs children of their futures. Can we continue to ask these children to make such huge sacrifices? Please call your Congress member and urge the passage of the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment—the CARE Act—today.