Farmworkers and COVID: ‘A ticking time bomb’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Box: How to get involved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes words fail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The legacy of César Chávez on César Chávez Day – National Consumers League

Reid MakiDo you ever think about people from the past you wish you could go back in time to meet? At the top or near the top of my list is César Chávez, who was born on March 31 in 1927. César died in 1993 a few months before I started working for a farmworker organization, the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP).  

 

For the last 22 years, my work with that AFOP and then the National Consumers League and the Child Labor Coalition has involved trying to obtain equal protection for farmworker children under US labor law. The legacy of César cast a big shadow on our efforts. His success in raising the public consciousness gave all of us hope in the advocacy community that we might help Americans to care about migrant farmworkers and their plight and the conditions endured by their children working in the fields beside them.

César was born in Yuma, Arizona in an adobe home on his parent’s ranch, which eventually was lost during the Great Depression. His family joined the exodus to California where they began work as migrant farmworkers and faced many hardships. The family would pick peas and lettuce in the winter, cherries and beans in the spring, corn and grapes in the summer and cotton in the fall.

Poverty forced César to drop out of school in the 8th grade to work in the fields. After he returned from a two-year stint in the Navy, César returned to California, married and eventually had eight children. Through much of the 50s, he worked for and eventually headed the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group. In 1962, he and Dolores Huerta cofounded a group that would later come to be known as the United Farm Workers (UFW) of America.

In the fertile California fields around him, César saw workers performing back-breaking work for wages that kept them in poverty. In 1965, he helped lead the five-year Delano grape strike. He also led the historic 340-mile protest march of thousands of striking farmworkers to the state capitol in Sacramento, inspiring many Americans. The union reached out to consumers and asked them to boycott grapes in support of the workers—an estimated 17 million Americans joined the boycott. Eventually, the growers were forced to recognize the union and raise workers’ wages. Around the country, other farmworker unions formed to advocate for farmworkers.

In the early 1970s, the UFW won passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, allowing farmworkers to bargain collectively.

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, César inspired the public by conducting a number of personal fasts, including one lasting 25 days, as part of his advocacy. Senator Robert Kennedy famously visited César to help draw attention to farmworker conditions.

César also espoused non-violent tactics used by Martin Luther King and Gandhi. His leadership and sacrifice helped a lot of average Americans to empathize with the struggles of migrant farmworkers. He helped give power to the powerless.

Christine_Chavez_on_Cesar_Chavez_Day.jpgToday, in Washington, the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and the U.S. Department of Agriculture honored the legacy of César by naming the department’s primary interior courtyard after him. César’s daughter, granddaughter, and son-in-law spoke in a public ceremony about the unfinished work that remains, including the deportation of hundreds of thousands of farmworkers, the lack of immigration reform, the worsening conditions for many rural workers and the need to advance rural cooperatives accessible to Latino workers.

One of those pieces of unfinished work that we at the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) and the National Consumers League are very much involved in is closing loopholes in U.S. child labor law that allow children, as young as 12, to work unlimited hours in US fields. This week we met with Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, leaders from the White House, and 16 representatives of tobacco companies and tobacco growers to discuss child labor in US tobacco fields.

Child labor in US agriculture concerned César. In his 1984 Commonwealth Club address in California he tried to warn the public about unfinished work:

“Child labor is still common in many farm areas. As much as 30 percent of Northern California’s garlic harvesters are under-aged children. Kids as young as six years old have voted in states, conducted union elections, since they qualified as workers. Some 800,000 under-aged children work with their families harvesting crops across America. Babies born to migrant workers suffer 25 percent higher infant mortality rates than the rest of the population. Malnutrition among migrant workers’ children is ten times higher than the national rate.”

César continued:

“All my life, I have been driven by one dream, one goal, one vision: to overthrow a farm labor system in this nation that treats farm workers as if they were not important human beings. Farm workers are not agricultural implements; they are not beasts of burden to be used and discarded. That dream was born in my youth, it was nurtured in my early days of organizing. It has flourished. It has been attacked.” 

Today, on the anniversary of his birth, we are inspired by the life of César Chávez and are committed to increasing wages for adult farmworkers so that parents are not compelled by poverty to bring their children to the fields with them.

We are committed to change US child labor laws so that they do not discriminate against Latino children.

We envision a future in which the sons and daughters of migrant children have the same educational opportunities as other children and are able to fully participate in the American dream.

As César and his beloved farmworkers often chanted, “Sí, se puede – Yes, we can!”

President Obama should act to protect child tobacco farmworkers – National Consumers League

I bet you knew that a 12-year-old cannot legally buy cigarettes in the US. But did you know that it’s legal in America for the same 12-year-old can work in a tobacco field for 10- to 12- hours a day in 100-degree heat and suffer repeated bouts of nicotine poisoning.

It doesn’t pass the common sense test and President Obama should do something about it. That’s the message sent to the President last Thursday in a letter by the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), a group which the National Consumers League founded 25 years ago to protect child workers from exploitative child labor and dangerous jobs. Sixteen groups, including the NAACP the League of United Latin American Citizens, Oxfam America, and Public Citizen, joined 34 CLC members to urge the White House to take immediate action.

The members of the CLC have long known the dangers of tobacco work for children, but we have a relatively new weapon in our fight to educate the public about this issue: A recent report, “Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming,” published by Human Rights Watch found that three quarters of 141 child tobacco workers interviewed in North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee-–the main tobacco-producing states—reported getting sick while working on US tobacco farms. Many of their symptoms—nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, and dizziness—are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning (also known as “Green Tobacco Sickness”). 

To make matters worse, Human Rights Watch found that three of the four states that produce 90 percent of US tobacco (Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee) have failed to take sufficient measures to enforce the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Field Sanitation Standard. This standard requires workers to be provided with fresh drinking water, hand washing facilities, and toilets. Most of the children interviewed by HRW were not provided with hand washing facilities or toilets, and some were not given sufficient drinking water.  The absence of hand washing facilities significantly increases the risks of nicotine and pesticide exposure.

Using information from the OSHA Integrated Management Information System, HRW reports that from January 2010 to December 2013, Kentucky carried out only eight field inspections in tobacco, Tennessee carried out one field inspection, and Virginia carried out none. Only one of the four major tobacco-producing states – North Carolina – made meaningful attempts to enforce the Field Sanitation Standard, with 143 inspections during the time period, said HRW researchers.

In addition to nicotine, farmworker children may also be absorbing a range of toxic pesticides commonly used in tobacco fields. Children often wear black garbage bags to protect them from these dual exposures but you can imagine what it’s like to wear a plastic bag in the 90- and 100-degree temperatures often found in tobacco fields. And, the work is dangerous. Child tobacco workers often use sharp tools and can work in tobacco drying barns at two-, three- and four-story heights without protective equipment as they balance precariously on the top of beams that may be only one or two inches thick

Signed by 50 organizations, the letter to President Obama represents millions of Americans, including teachers, healthcare professionals, farmworkers, and advocates concerned about the safety, education, and welfare of children, and it asks the president to issue narrowly-tailored regulations to prohibit work by children in tobacco fields and calls on the Department of Labor to conduct targeted field investigations to ensure that no children under 12 are working in the fields illegally.

The letter to the president also calls on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue “health hazard alerts” so that employers will know how they might mitigate risks of nicotine poisoning for their employees. And it cites the need for better data collection to allow an accurate count of the number of children who currently work in US tobacco fields and other farms.

The situation—with children as young as 12 (and HRW found about a dozen kids conducting lighter work in the fields who were under 12)—is so absurd that it proved great material for the satirists at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, who produced a funny, but alarming, report called “Nicoteens.” The clip will make you laugh and allow you to hear young tobacco workers describing the work conditions in their own words.

In June, the CLC sent a letter to the top 10 tobacco companies signed by over 50 organizations, asking for voluntary action to limit tobacco work in the fields. Thus far, no concrete actions to remove children from tobacco fields have been initiated by the companies.

In 2011, the Obama Administration acted to implement regulations to protect working children from farm dangers, including tobacco work, but those rules were withdrawn because of opposition from the farm community. CLC members fought hard for those comprehensive protections, but were no match for the resources of the agricultural lobby. The wholesale withdrawal of occupational child safety regulations for farms left child workers in tobacco vulnerable to nicotine poisoning, pesticide poisoning, and other dangers. It’s time to fix this glaring consequence of the administration’s complete pullback and move forward to protect children in tobacco fields.

Readers who wish to send a quick note to the White House about this issue should go here.

A bill, HR 5327, in the House of Representatives, recently introduced by Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) would classify tobacco work as hazardous labor, allowing the USDOL to ban work by children under 16. We encourage consumers to call or write their member of Congress and ask them to cosponsor the bill. 

It’s time to stop the madness. We need your help.

 

We remember Robin Romano – National Consumers League

At a eulogy in New York, Pharis Harvey, the founder of the International Labor Rights Fund and a pioneer in modern child labor advocacy, called him “a loose cannon for justice.”

“The heat of his moral imperative was more than he could contain,” said Sam Morris, who worked with Robin on multiple films.

We lost Robin in early November, when he passed away unexpectedly. It seemed impossible that this firebrand could be gone. As I attended his memorial service in New York, I don’t think I was alone in expecting him to walk in the door and say, “The joke’s on you…the rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

Robin was only 57, but everyone thought he was younger. He had piercing blue eyes that were constantly smiling or glowering. Robin was often outraged. How could you not be? A quarter of a billion children were toiling in the most harrowing of circumstances and no one seemed to care. Millions were enslaved. Millions were trapped in bonded labor.

Robin’s outrage was often tempered with a mischievous delight in making people laugh.  He was a jokester who loved making prank phone calls. He would call and, in an exaggerated, exotic accent—with mock-outrage—accuse us of using child labor or failing to pay our taxes.

SCI first met Robin over a dozen years ago when I learned that he and his filmmaking partner Len Morris were working on the first feature length film about child labor, Stolen Childhoods. At the time, 250 million children were trapped in child labor, but the child labor advocacy community was having a hard time getting people to care about them.  We needed to put a face on the problem and Stolen Childhoods promised to do just that. Robin and Len roamed around the globe filming shocking scenes of child labor—often at great peril. They fled for their lives on more than one occasion.

Their lens captured young boys on fishing platforms, young girls working as domestic servants or forced into prostitution. They filmed children laboring in stone quarries, brick kilns, and coffee plantations. They showed a range of child labor and conditions that horrified the public.

When we met, Robin and Len were interested in adding to the nearly completed Stolen Childhoods a segment about child farmworkers in the US—a vestige of child labor that still haunts America today.

At the time, I worked for the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, a CLC member that had been trying to highlight this issue for years. Through our contacts with local farmworker groups in Texas, we helped Robin and Len locate working children hidden on back country roads in the vast expanse of Texas.

I accompanied Robin and Len on the shoot for a few days, and watched them film dozens of children working with razor-sharp scissors, harvesting onions for about a penny a pound. Temperatures were in the high 90s and sometimes went over 100. One girl, 10, was so sick she could barely talk. One small boy, also 10, worked barefoot at a pace that most men could not match. The work was back-breaking and many families had three generations toiling in the fields. It wasn’t difficult to see what the future held for many children.

Robin and Len worked tirelessly to get their story. Robin stood in the fields with a video camera and SC1several still cameras draped over his shoulders and on his belt, going back and forth, shooting stills in color and black and white. He was so covered in cameras, he almost didn’t look human.

Field shots were followed by visits to some of the homes of the workers 90 miles away. Robin would put in a 10 hour day and then once back at the hotel, chain smoke a few cigarettes and go for a long run. I didn’t know how he did it. “He had no body clock,” said Pharis Harvey. Eventually, “he would just collapse.”

Other films followed. In 2010, he and Dutch journalist Miki Mastrati made The Dark Side of Chocolate, unveiling the hidden child labor and trafficking in West Africa that helps produce the chocolate that we all love. In 2011, he directed The Harvest/La Cosecha, a feature length film that explored the physical and emotional toll on three child farmworkers.

The NGO community heralded these films, organizing public education and advocacy around each of them. Robin pushed tirelessly for solutions to the problems he exposed, regularly participating in our Child Labor Coalition strategy sessions long after his films were made.

Occasionally, he would get groups to pay for his brilliant photography, but when they could not find the budget for them, he shared them for free. He knew we needed the ammunition for the war we were waging. “He went everywhere and shot everything,” noted Harvey.

In the years since Robin and Len started filming Stolen Childhoods, the number of child laborers in the world has dropped by 80 million. I feel certain that Robin Romano played a crucial role in helping bring that decrease about. Robin has been such an integral part of our advocacy it is hard to imagine our work moving forward without him, but we know that he would have demanded that we continue.

If you would like to join the Child Labor Coalition and its members  for our “Remembering Robin” memorial event this Thursday, February 13, in Washington, DC, please RSVP  here.

Fewer children forced to toil in the Uzbek cotton fields – National Consumers League

makiFor several years, the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), which NCL co-chairs with the American Federation of Teachers, has worked closely with the Cotton Campaign to reduce child labor and forced child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest. Uzbekistan, run by totalitarian dictator Islam Karimov, is the only country in the world where the central government has recently played a major role in causing large-scale forced child labor. 

For many years, Uzbekistan’s leaders emptied schools and literally forced school children—sometimes very small children—to harvest cotton, a grueling, painful, sometimes dangerous job. The country is one of the largest cotton producers in the world, and Uzbek cotton sometimes finds its way into the U.S. apparel industry, despite a pledge by more than 130 apparel companies that they will not knowingly use Uzbek cotton in their garments.

For years, Uzbek children worked beside similarly conscripted college students and older adults for four to eight weeks at a time, missing much-needed school in the process. The workers were paid so little that their labors should be considered a form of temporary slavery. Those who refused were expelled from school, fired from their jobs, denied public benefits, or worse. Some harvesters have reported being beaten because they did not meet their cotton quota.  The forced labor of children and adults did not enrich struggling local farmers, but benefited the country’s ruling elite.

Despite aggressive advocacy by the Cotton Campaign, Karimov had intractably refused to ease the use of child labor and forced labor. Recently, however, the situation in Uzbekistan has shown signs of changing.

Advocacy by the Cotton Campaign led to a very surprising success last summer, when the US State Department issued its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) country-by-country report and it included a downgrade of Uzbekistan to the lowest tier ranking, signaling that the Uzbek government was simply not doing enough to reduce forced labor and the worst forms of child labor in the country. Although the advocacy community had worked hard and long to bring about this downgrade—and it was completely deserved—it was still a surprise. The US government has many strategic concerns in Uzbekistan related to supply routes for the war in Afghanistan, and it was assumed that the State Department would not be willing to issue the deserved downgrade for fear of alienating Uzbek leaders. Fortunately, the State Department honored the intent of the TIP report and in so doing, applied additional pressure to the Uzbek government.

Soon afterwards, advocacy pressure may have led the Karimov regime to allow, for the first time, an inspection team by the International Labour Organization (ILO) for the 2013 cotton harvest, which began last fall. The Cotton Campaign had been pressing for an ILO inspection for several years. Uzbek officials relented and agreed to allow in an ILO team comprised of staff members, not the “high level” mission that civil society had hoped for that would have included representatives of workers, employers, and civil society. Despite this, getting the ILO in to monitor the harvest was a small victory and an important step towards a fuller monitoring visit.

What did this year’s harvest look like? For the second year in a row, it appears fewer schools with young students were closed and fewer young students were compelled to harvest cotton. However, like last year, a greater number of teens and young adults were forced to go to the fields toil under conditions that are often very difficult. ILO investigators say they did not see “systematic forced child labor,” but acknowledge they saw numerous children working. The advocacy community still believes that children are compelled to work against their wishes, but number of young children is decreasing.

Much work remains to be done in Uzbekistan, a million Uzbeks still toil in forced labor every autumn and the country continues to repress civil society and human rights. The CLC and the international advocacy community, under the leadership of the Cotton Campaign will continue to pressure Uzbek officials to end the forced labor of children and adults in Uzbekistan. We hope to build on the promising developments of last year.

Disturbing phenomenon: Rapid increase of unaccompanied minors entering US – National Consumers League

maki Imagine you are a child, age 13, 14, or 15. Gang members in your school are threatening to beat, kidnap, or kill you. They want money, but you are poor. They threaten to harm you and your family if you don’t pay them large sums of money. There is no way for you to obtain those sums. This is the situation faced by increasing numbers of teens living in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador as gangs spread throughout their countries. 

The kids are scared to death and clinging to a desperate hope: Escape their tormentors, get to the US, find work, and send money back to protect their families. Unfortunately, the numbers of these “unaccompanied minors” is exploding. According to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which is alerting the public about this new trend, the numbers of children expected to cross into the US without adult supervision is expected to be 60,000 this year. This represents nearly a tenfold increase in the number of unaccompanied minors in just three years.

According to a fact-finding delegation led by the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services, there is a “perfect storm” of contributing factors pushing teens to leave their homes and attempt a perilous journey to the US. In addition to the fear of violence from gangs, these “push” factors include:

  • The absence of economic opportunity;
  • The inability of individuals and families to support themselves
  • The lack of quality education and access to education; and
  • The desire to reunify with family members in the US.

The USCCB held a forum on this disturbing trend on January 9th. Among those who attended was a consular official from Guatemala’s diplomatic corp. She told attendees that her country is overwhelmed with the number of migrating children. Since 70 percent of the kids are turned back at the US border, Guatemala is trying to identify funds to deal with the returned migrant youth. They would love to establish programs to help the kids stay in Guatemala, but for the most part the funds are not available.

Migrating teens often make multiple attempts till they make it into the US. USCCB believes that 30 percent eventually make it in, but they often incur significant debts to pay to smugglers—sometimes as much as $5,000 to $8,000. Farms and homes are being mortgaged to pay for these “coyote” fees. So when the teens get to the US, they are often desperate to find work and repay the loans.

The journey to the US is particularly dangerous for the migrating teens. Children are losing limbs as they try to board trains. Teen girls are especially vulnerable. Advocates believe 60% of girls are assaulted or raped on during their trips; nearly one in four become pregnant on the journey. Both boys and girls are vulnerable to being trafficked.

What happens when the children make it to the US? Imagine being here at a very young age and being separated from your family. You may not speak the language. You have no safety net. US nonprofits are struggling to deal with the services needed by this most vulnerable population. From our work on the Child Labor Coalition, we believe that many of these unaccompanied youth may end up performing hand harvest work in agriculture—a difficult, dangerous job. Most of these children will not make it into a school system. Their futures are very uncertain.

What can be done to help the incredibly vulnerable children trying to flee violence and dire poverty in their homelands? The USCCB delegation to the four source countries came up with several recommendations that include providing legal representation to the migrants, considering asylum for those children whose fear of gang violence is credible, having child welfare experts help assess the migrants when they are captured by border agents, and investing in prevention programs in the sending countries. The complete list of recommendations will be available at USCCB’s Refugee and Migration Service publications page soon.