It ain’t just tobacco

Photo by Heather Anderson
Photo by Heather Anderson

Thanks to a recent feature on The Daily Show and a slew of media attention (links below) a lot more people are now aware of the problem of children working in U.S. tobacco fields. This attention is a very good thing, but the problem goes way beyond tobacco: There are kids — mostly Latino, mostly dirt poor — harvesting crops of all kinds across America.

The Human Rights Watch report that ignited this attention is but one of numerous accounts of child labor in agriculture and was based on interviews with just 133 kids. Some estimate there are more than 400,000 children, maybe more than 700,000, working on U.S. farms.

The general public may not know about these kids but plenty of insiders do. The photos accompanying this post are from the 2009 Children in the Fields project by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. It drew the same conclusions as the Human Rights Watch study and was not limited to tobacco. Melissa Bailey of NC Field, a non-profit based in Kinston, North Carolina, also sees kids at work all the time. And she doesn’t have to go far. “Last season I stopped counting after visiting 100 children in nearby fields.”

Child labor anywhere is wrong. Child labor in U.S. agriculture is unconscionable for any number of reasons. First is the simple fact agriculture is among the most dangerous occupations for workers of any age.

Accidents with farm machinery can maim a child in an instant; heat stress can (and does) kill; and exposure to toxic pesticides is especially hard on kids. Their bodies aren’t done growing so development is impaired, and their smaller body mass makes the same dose of pesticides more harmful to them than to an adult-sized body.

A decent education is a pipe dream for many farmworking kids. As migrants they hopscotch from one school to another as a matter of course. And they miss a lot. Around half drop out before college, sucked for life into the vortex of poverty.

Photo by Heather Anderson
Photo by Heather Anderson

How can this be?

Child labor laws were part of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Institutional racism still permeated U.S. law back then so jobs held by blacks, such as crop work, were easily excluded. It didn’t help that the agricultural economics formed in the days of slavery still depended on cheap labor. In fact it still does. And while African Americans no longer hold most farmworking jobs, another minority has taken their place. Something like 80% of all crop workers in America are Hispanic. And more than half live below the poverty line.

Farmworking children belong to a minority class and they are very poor. That, it appears, is why 2014 is so much like 1914 for so many kids.

If they must work it would be nice if farmworking kids could at least count on the minimum hourly wage of $7.25. But legally they can be paid $3 less than everyone else. This is from the Department of Labor web site:

“Employees under 20 years of age may be paid $4.25 per hour during their first consecutive 90 calendar days of employment.”

These agriculture exemptions have been around a long time. And today, the agribusiness lobby uses switchblade politics—brilliantly—to keep these out-dated laws firmly in place.

In 2011 the Obama administration tried to make a change. A small change. They attempted to limit the type of hazardous work the youngest kids could perform in agriculture. They proposed to simply apply the same rules to agriculture that apply to, say, steel-working.

The effort was met by a campaign of blatant disinformation, such as Sarah Palin claiming the law would prevent young people from working on family farms. That simply wasn’t true. When industry-backed Republicans threatened to defund the Department of Labor, the president turned tail not just for the day but for all of his days. The language from the DOL could not have left Obama supporters more slack-jawed:

“… this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.”

So much for Hope.

Americans are led to think of their country as the international gold standard for human rights. In many areas we are. But how can we let little kids work in tobacco fields when countries like Russia, Kazakhstan and India ban it? Maybe some global shaming will do us some good.

History gives me hope. It took a half century of serious effort to enact any child labor laws at all in this country, and more than a century just to abolish slavery. These things take time. And time has a way of making things right. I’ve always liked how Martin Luther King, Jr. put it:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”.

It can’t bend soon enough for the kids in our fields.


For more on this topic…

MADE IN THE USA: Child Labor & Tobacco
Human Rights Watch

Nicoteens
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Why Are Children Working in American Tobacco Fields?
by Gabriel Thompson
The Nation

The Harvest / La Cocheca
The Story of the Children Who Feed America

Child Labor in North Carolina Tobacco Fields
WUNC Radio, The State of Things

Children Don’t Belong in Tobacco Fields
New York Times

Children At Work
A Glimpse into the lives of child farmworkers in the United States
Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs