SPECIAL REPORT/A.V. Krebs
After all these years, a harvest of shame is still borne on the backs of
"I've never seen anyone working on any farm anywhere who is under the
age of 18." Incredible as it may appear, that was Brian Little, director
of government relations of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFB) addressing
the question of under-age children working in the fields and orchards of
Little's recent declaration to an Associated Press reporter demonstrates
the Farm Bureau's often ruthless anti-labor stance and its long-standing
inhumaneness in dealing with economic and social justice issues, but it
also is indicative of a well-fed society's seeming indifference to its "fields
While not as blatant, such myopia can also be found in U.S. Department of
Labor. Labor Department officials around the country are frequently heard
to say that underage children working in the fields are nearly impossible
"I don't believe we have ever found it," Jorge Rivero, Labor Department
district director in Miami told Associated Press reporter Martha Mendoza.
"If it exists, we don't know about it." Yet, less than an hour
away, near Homestead, Fla., the AP found eight underage children harvesting
beans on several farms on a single day in November.
Recently the AP, in a perceptive and riveting five-part series, "Children
For Hire," examined child labor in these United States. Its findings
again strangely echoed a number of now-famous newspaper series, books and
television exposés and documentaries going back to novelist John
Steinbeck's San Francisco newspaper reports on worker conditions in California's
Salinas Valley in the 1930s, Carey McWilliams' episodic book Factories
in the Field and Edward R. Murrow's 1960 Thanksgiving television classic
documentary "Harvest of Shame."
Curiously, the complete AP series appeared in only a few newspapers throughout
the U.S. It was ignored by such publications as the New York Times
and the Washington Post.
The AP, in an effort to learn just how many under-age children are currently
in the nation's workplaces, asked Rutgers University labor consultant Douglas
Kruse to analyze monthly census surveys and other workplace and population
data collected by the federal government.
The study, which U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman called more comprehensive
than anything her department had produced, found that 290,200 children were
employed unlawfully in 1996; that among them 59,000 were under the age of
14; that 123,000 of those children worked in the nation's fields, orchards
and sheds from California to the Midwest to Delaware; of that number 61,000
of the 14-17 year olds lived apart from their parents. In addition it is
estimated that uncounted thousands more are under age 14.
In the five months that Mendoza and some 27 other AP reporters and a dozen
photographers talked and followed some of these children they alone found
165 children working illegally in 16 states from the "chili fields
of New Mexico to the sweatshops of New York City."
Recent newspaper and television "exposés" have told of
inhumane child labor in Southeast Asia and Latin America sweatshops and
television personalities tearfully plead their mea culpas publicly after
learning that their endorsed products were being manufactured in these very
Yet, meanwhile, the American consumer blithely goes about buying their everyday
food menu from companies such as Campbell Soup Co., Chi-Chi's Mexican restaurants,
Costco, ConAgra, H.J. Heinz and Pillsbury. All these companies and others
sold food that the AP found had been the work products of some 50 under-age
children that the AP followed in the fields.
Reacting to the Associated Press stories several companies have subsequently
changed or updated their policies. H.J. Heinz, Campbell Soup Co. and Newman's
Own all report that they are changing their policies as a result of the
At Heinz, spokeswoman Debbie Magnus said the company had previously required
vendors to sign a form guaranteeing compliance with child labor laws, but
that it is now clear that was not sufficient, and that Heinz is now planning
to work directly with processors and growers "to truly guarantee compliance."
At Campbell Soup, spokesman Kevin Lowery told Mendoza that the company is
sending letters to all of its suppliers, whether identified in the series
or not, to remind them that violating federal and state child labor laws
could cost them their contracts. "We're telling thousands upon thousands
of suppliers, 'If you are not in adherence, you will be what we call a former
Newman's Own said that chili growers, processors, labor contractor agencies
and suppliers will all be required to sign contracts promising to comply
with state and federal child labor laws. The company will also require spot
checks of the fields during harvest season, it said. "If they are using
children to pick the produce, we're not going to buy it," said Tom
Indoe, chief operating officer of Newman's Own.
Meanwhile, other companies named in the series saw no need to change their
policies. At Pillsbury, for example, spokesman Terry Thompson said it checked
with farmers on whose property the AP saw, and photographed, children working
and learned that none of them had been cited by the federal government for
child labor violations in the last two years. Therefore, he said, "we
consider this case closed."
While the New York sweatshops grab national headlines and the evening TV
news, in Washington state's Brewster Heights Packing Plant Co. more than
100 cherry and apple plant workers suffered carbon monoxide poisoning in
July, 1997. Hospital records later showed that seven of the victims were
under age 16-year old Mexican Americans.
Company President Ed Pariseau announced five days later that the two girls
and five boys had been "fired," that they "should reapply
when you are of legal age," that the law barring them from working
was "a shame," and that "philosophically, we think it is
the best thing we could do in the world to hire more teenagers."
Later, when the Associated Press after learning the actual ages of the children
involved --- six 15-year olds and one 14-year old --- by obtaining hospital
records filed with the state labor department and released to AP through
a State Freedom of Information Act request, it also learned that local U.S.
Department of Labor office had no knowledge of the event
For children who work in our "fields of infamy" there is the added
deadly hazard of chemical poisons. While studies of Washington state apple
workers, for example, show 16 times the chemical poison breakdown products
in their urine than their non-agricultural worker neighbors, experts point
out that there is far greater risk to children from such long-term, low
level chemical poison exposure.
"Compared to late-in-life exposures to pesticides early in life can
lead to a greater risk of chronic effects that are expressed only after
long latency periods have elapsed," according to a 1993 National Academy
of Science committee report.
Dr. Marion Moses, the long-time, tireless advocate for improved farm worker
safety and health and director of the Pesticide Education Center in San
Francisco has got it right when she charges "everybody stands there
with a straight face and talks about protecting children, and yet they don't
do anything to protect child workers. I don't think we should be dousing
children very early in life with toxic chemicals."
Typical of what Dr. Moses is talking about is the Food Quality Protection
Act of 1996 which requires the Environmental Protection Agency to consider
children who are the most vulnerable to adverse health effects, when it
sets limits on chemical poisons in food. However, the surprisingly tough
legislation, even to the environmental lobby, specifically forbids EPA from
considering occupational exposure to chemical poisons and goes out of its
way to exclude children.
One finding contained within the AP investigation of "Children For
Hire" that squarely puts the question of child labor, particularly
in the fields, into sharp focus is that fact that employers saved $155 million
in wages in 1996 by hiring underage children instead of legal workers.
"If adults were paid a living wage, we wouldn't have child labor,"
Ann Millard, a Michigan State University anthropologist who studies migrant
labor conditions rightfully states. One might also add that if family farmers,
particularly those under contract to large food processors, were paid a
fair price for what they produce, agriculture would not have the historical
problems that it has had when it comes to paying its field labor.
Indeed, a recent General Accounting Office report shows that there is "no
national agricultural labor shortage at this time," despite efforts
by a number of farm industry associations, including the AFB, to expand
the number of temporary work visas for the so-called guest workers by arguing
that some regions face labor shortages, which are likely to increase as
immigration officials step up efforts to bar and return illegal aliens.
Under the current farm guest-worker program, known as H-2A, farm employers
brought in 15,000 foreign workers in 1996, a small portion of the estimated
labor force of 2 million farm workers, about 40 percent of whom were illegal
aliens. Guest workers typically work for two or three months on jobs ranging
from sheep herding to apple picking.
Farm labor advocates reject such requests pointing out that increasing the
number of such guest workers will undercut the wages of field laborers nationwide
and weaken efforts to unionize them.
As Dolores Huerta, secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers, charges,
"there's definitely a surplus of farm workers." In a telephone
interview with the New York Times' Stephen Greenhouse she added,
"that explains why there has been a drop in farm-worker wages over
the last 10 to 15 years. They have dropped wages substantially because they
always know there's a large pool of workers they can get."
As evidence that there is no shortage of farm labor, the GAO said that of
the nation's 20 largest agricultural counties it surveyed in the summer
of 1997, 11 had unemployment rates more than twice the national average
of five percent, and 15 had jobless rates two percentage points higher than
the national rate.
GAO also noted that after accounting for inflation, the average hourly wage
of farm workers fell by 17 percent from 1989 to 1995. That, the Congress'
investigative agency said, pointed to a labor surplus, rather than a shortage.
Let's make no mistake about what we are talking about when we discuss children
working in the "fields of infamy." We are not talking about the
children of most farm families, who are just as concerned about their children's
health and welfare, as the general public professes and who act accordingly.
We are talking about those corporate agribusinesses and frequently the business
and labor contractors in their employ who see children not as human beings
but as simply, docile, cost-cutting production inputs extremely beneficial
to their own bottom lines.
Associated Press' "Children for Hire" conclusively found that
farmers and factory owners who illegally hire underage children generally
get away with it and that the U.S. Department of Labor, charged with enforcing
the nation's child labor laws:
(ogonek) Fails to find the most vulnerable victims of child labor.
(ogonek) Maintains a secret fine schedule that undercuts the $10,000-per-violation
child-labor penalty imposed by Congress.
(ogonek) Fails to bring criminal cases against repeat offenders.
(ogonek) Does not seize goods that are the product of illegal child labor,
as provided by law.
It is time, therefore, that all those people in the agricultural community
who believe in the sanctity of the human being, who believe that children
are our future, who say that to abuse, injure and "murder" children,
is as heinous a crime as one can imagine, it is time that those people organize
and take action.
It is time that they force the U.S. Department of Labor, their elected representatives,
their local, state and federal governments and those traditional anti-labor
farm organizations like the AFB and the corporate purveyors of misery in
our "fields of infamy" to become not only accountable, but morally,
economically and socially responsible when it comes to the rights and the
health and welfare of our children.
A.V. Krebs is the author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness
(Essential Books: 1992)
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