Posts

Guest Blog: My background in farmwork

By Luz Vazquez Hernandez, NCL Child Labor Coalition Summer Intern

Coming from a background of farmwork, I know the struggle against heat. At 14 years old, I began picking blueberries in Michigan during the summer, and from there on I learned to pick a variety of crops all over Michigan and my home base in Florida. I spent my weekends and any school days off – including summers – picking strawberries, squash, pickles, peppers, and jalapeños.

I learned to push my body and to handle extreme weather conditions. I suffered pains and aches that my parents felt every day. Complaining to my parents was not an option, and my body adapted.

Working in the fields during intense heat were the worst moments. Covered in layers from head to toe, with pants, a long-sleeve shirt, a hoodie, and a bandana was my daily attire. Covering most of my face, the bandana made it hard for me to breathe in extreme heat; at times, I felt my body, head, and eyes just shutting off. I felt I could not go any longer, but seeing my parents endure the heat and hold it in, I tried to do the same and distract myself from my thoughts.

It was common to see workers faint, as taking breaks in the shade and drinking water were not enough. I witnessed my mom, dad, and brother faint more than twice in 100-plus-degree weather, which always made me scared; somehow, we all managed to continue our 12 to 13-hour shifts because our paycheck depended on how many crops we picked.

We could not afford to take long lunch breaks – we often had a bite or two of lunch and a Gatorade, and then immediately went back into the fields. Before I turned 19, I stopped working as a harvester because I knew that I had greater opportunities than my parents and that farmwork was not the only job I could have.  I have made it a goal of mine to share my story and continue my education so that I can help create the changes that my community needs.

I am now a rising senior at Michigan State University, and I am interning with the National Consumers League (NCL) and the Child Labor Coalition (CLC). I am grateful because I get to work closely on policies affecting my community and interests. However, knowing that I get to work inside an office with air-conditioning makes me feel guilty because I know that my parents and younger siblings are in Michigan picking crops in this summer heat, sweating, thirsty, and hoping for a cloud to bring shade to them.

As a nation, the United States needs to take immediate action to protect farmworkers from extreme heat exposure. As temperatures rise, farmworkers’ suffering is increasing. Farmworkers feed America and deserve protection.

A current legislative effort addressing heat protection is the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, which sets standards needed to protect workers from heat, such as having drinking water accessible, requiring rest breaks, and providing access to shade. The bill would require employers to educate and train workers to recognize and prevent heat illness and mandate emergency protocols.

In a separate initiative, the Biden administration recently proposed a set of regulations to protect workers in extreme heat. The rules focus on including heat safety regulations at work, and they direct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to help establish a nationwide protection standard. These two initiatives are vital if we want to protect farmworkers from heat illness.

After years of seeing my parents toil in the fields and working beside them, I feel the need to be an advocate for my community. Interning with the NCL and CLC, I have become acquainted with numerous congressional bills, but the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act is one that would affect me and fellow farmworkers. The work of the National Consumers League and Child Labor Coalition and groups like the National Heat Network, organized by Public Citizen, gives me hope that soon farmworkers and other outdoor workers who work in extreme heat will have safer working conditions.

Growing up in fields

By Child Labor Coalition Intern Jacqueline Aguilar

July 20, 2023

I grew up in a small rural area named Center, Colorado which has a population of about 2,000 people. Growing up my parents were always working in the fields, I remember my father coming home from work, and I would feel how raspy his hands were on my face. I would always ask myself, “Why are his hands so rough?” Eventually, I realized it was because of the hard work he did every day.

In middle school, buying school clothes was difficult for my parents. I started working in the lettuce fields at the age of eleven with many of my friends. We would go in at 5:00 am and get out around 2:00 pm, my parents couldn’t take me to work because they had their own job to get to, so I would have to catch a ride with my supervisor at 4:30am and get home around 3:00 pm.

Walking down those lettuce fields was draining physically, and mentally. It consisted of tired feet walking down the field with my blistered hands holding a bulky hoe and keeping an eye out on the lettuce heads making sure they grew the right way. Most days would start with the fields cold and wet with dew. I was often drenched in mud. By the time the sun rose, it was boiling outside. I would still wear layers of clothes to avoid getting sunburnt and wrap bandanas around my head and neck.

There was no cold water available for us during working hours, or even on our lunch break. We normally worked a 12-hour shift with a 30-minute lunch—typically just cold food or snacks since we didn’t have enough time to go home and make something.

I found the work exhausting, so I started working a food service job. But soon found myself back in the fields when my father got diagnosed with lung cancer. My father had migrated to the U.S. when he was 19 and had been working in the fields ever since. The cancer could have been caused from the fertilizer, dust, and pesticides that he breathed in the fields.

My mother is now disabled with torn ligaments in her shoulder, which can also be from her field work and the movements of sorting the potatoes for so many years.

My parents were unable to provide for me financially and had to move three hours from home for my dad’s cancer treatment, so I worked the potato harvest while attending high school. I juggled a lot of responsibilities during this time, and it was difficult to still be a child with so much on my plate.

I recall one morning it began to snow, we didn’t know any better, so we kept working in the heavy weather. My fingers and feet grew ice-cold as I sorted potatoes, and I wished they would tell us to go home for the day. At that moment, I knew I wanted more for myself.

I am trying to give back to my community. I dedicate two days of my week tutoring ESL students at Center Middle School, where I previously attended. I want to help Spanish-speaking students continue school without the language barrier.

I have also been connected to the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Program since youth. For the past three years, I have been the Otero Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Recruiter in the San Luis Valley in Colorado which allows me to promote a good program that benefits farmworker children and parents. I am an active member of the College Assistance Migrant Program at Adams State University where I’ve learned the value of an educational community and the power of coming together to work toward a common goal.

I am now a rising junior at Adams State University working toward a major in sociology with an emphasis in social work and a minor in Spanish. I hope to receive my Master’s degree at Colorado State University-Pueblo to become a medical social worker. I want to stay close to my community to help families that face barriers to medical services—just as mine did when my father had cancer.

New app seeks to raise awareness of the worst forms of child labor and forced labor – National Consumers League

maki.jpgThis post originally appeared on stopchildlabor.org. The Child Labor Coalition is a program of the National Consumers League. Written by Deborah Andrews, CLC Contributing Writer and Reid Maki, CLC Coordinator.

The US Department of Labor recently released an exciting new tool to help consumers figure out if the products they purchase are made with child labor or forced labor.  The sheer size of the 2014 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor produced by the Bureau of International Affairs (ILAB) highlights the reality of this problem – the hard copy version of the report is over 1,000 pages long and weighs in at over eight pounds.USDOL_app.PNG

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates 168 million children globally are engaged in child labor, including 85 million in hazardous labor; 21 million people are trapped in forced labor, including 6 million children. Think of the DoL “Findings” report as a road map that tells us where children are working. It also includes vital information about how 140 countries are combating child labor.

On September 30, 2015, ILAB launched their brand new app, ‘Sweat & Toil’ – now available on iTunes and the App Store, which features the report data in a way that makes it much more accessible. The app enables an individual to search by country name or product.  It includes a country specific review of the current laws and ratifications and the efforts by that country being made to eliminate child labor and assesses its progress.

USDOL-app-photo.png

For example, a user can click on “Albania” and learn that the country made “moderate advancement” in dealing with child labor in 2014. By clicking on a statistics button, the user learns that 87.5 percent of child workers toil in agriculture in the country. A user who clicks on “Brazil,” learns that the country has 16 products produced with exploitative labor, including 13 with child labor and four with forced labor – one of which is beef.

Consumers purchasing a specific good can look it up to see if it is produced by child labor, forced labor, or both. Buying a bag of charcoal for your barbecue? The app would help consumers to know that production of charcoal involves child labor in Brazil and Uganda, and in Brazil it is produced with both forced labor and child labor. For consumers who care about the world and children who are exploited in global supply chains, this app could be addictive.

The broader aim is to empower the consumer to make intelligent decisions about the products we buy, as well as persuade companies to examine their supply chains and identify where risks may be.

Let’s hope this user-friendly app, with its vast amount of current data on child labor and forced labor, will bring about a future where the consumer is highly conscientious and intentional in their consuming.

To download the app, search for “Sweat and Toil.” Readers can view online copies of the new updates of DOL child labor reports by clicking here.