For the forgotten, whom we remember once a year…
If I were a poet, this would be my opening line, like A Bed for the Night or A Brief for the Defense or Elegy, but the poem would be darker and full of Bukowski-like heartache and disdain.
But I am not a poet. I am a filmmaker and photographer who has spent more than a decade of my life documenting child labor around the world. I have filmed and photographed and spoken with children who pick the coffee beans we brew on plantations in Kenya, weave the carpets we walk on at looms in India, Pakistan and Nepal, dig for gold while suffocating in mines or dive to their deaths from fishing boats in Ghana. Children who are trafficked to and from Mexico and Thailand at age 12 or 14, and pushed into hotels by middle-aged johns while still bearing the scars of their beatings from their pimps, children on fishing platforms miles off the coast of Indonesia where they are trapped for three months at a time hauling in nets filled with teri (a fish that is the main ingredient of those multi colored crackers we dip into sweet sauce at Chinese restaurants around the world), child soldiers in Uganda forced to burn their families alive or amputate the arms and legs their siblings, trafficked children on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast who, far from home, bear the scars of the machetes they use so we can enjoy the sweet taste of chocolate. For me, child labor is, unfortunately, a target-rich environment. Even here in the United States of America there are hundreds of thousands of children planting and picking the fruits and vegetables that we eat.
Ten years ago, the ILO created World Day Against Child Labor, but for the 215 million children who work around the world, this day should be their day every day. And this should be the day where we also remember the 250,000 to 400,000 American children who are systematically exploited every year as they harvest the food that we eat.
They are there right now in our fields, working at far younger ages, for longer hours at exploitative wages and at greater risk to their health than any other children in America, because of a loophole in Federal law that permits children as young as 12, and sometimes younger, to work in 100-degree heat in a tomato field for 16 hours, but does not allow that same child to work in an air-conditioned office until she is 16. And that should not be so.
In December of 2000, President Bill Clinton signed ILO Convention 182, the Convention concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor. In June of 2000, Human Rights Watch issued its seminal report Fingers To The Bone: United States Failure To Protect Child Farmworkers. In 2001, Senator Tom Harkin re-introduced the CARE Bill (Children’s Act for Responsible Employment, which has been introduced every year since then, most recently by Representative Roybal-Allard), which would have brought us into compliance with Convention 182.
Yet in 2002 Len Morris and I documented numerous abuses of this convention in Texas while filming Stolen Childhoods, abuses that, sadly, continue to this day.
So while Senator Harkin points at Uzbek cotton and other crops and commodities as an example of the worst forms of child labor in a speech he gave before the Senate commemorating World Day Against Child Labor last year:
“The work performed by these children, stooped over to pick cotton under a hot sun, also falls under the category of hazardous work. Hazardous work is by its very nature likely to harm the health and safety of children. Hazardous work exposes children to physical, emotional, or even sexual abuse. It includes children working underground in mines, underwater, at dangerous heights, or in confined spaces. Children work with dangerous machinery, equipment, and tools. They may work in unhealthy environments, exposed to hazardous substances like nicotine in tobacco fields or to extreme temperatures, noise levels, or vibrations that can damage growing bodies. Some children are even forced to work such long hours that they are up for entire nights or are not allowed to return to their own home at the end of the day.”
The sad truth is we do little at home for our own children who work under similar conditions in our agricultural sector. The level of disconnect is stratospherically high.
Of the Eight Core ILO Conventions that most counties have signed onto, the United States has implemented only two and the Convention On The Rights of The Child, the most ratified Convention in the history of the ILO, has only three countries that haven’t ratified. Somalia and Southern Sudan are two of them. Sadly, we are the third.
While the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs lists 130 goods from 71 countries that should be banned under the TVPRA, I have personally documented and spoken to American children who have done the same work under the same conditions for 17 of those goods here in this country. Even a proposed set of safety regulations aimed at minimizing harm to children hired to work in the fields, that would have regulated the kind of hazardous labor described above by Senator Harkin, were withdrawn in a heartbreaking about-face, by the Department of Labor on April 26 of this year. These new rules would have updated the decades-old list of tasks considered hazardous and therefore off limits for hired farmworkers under age 16, but over 180 elected officials in Washington stood in opposition to the first changes in agricultural safety regulations for children in 40 years, recommendations that National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health made nearly a decade ago. They include Senators Jerry Moran of Kansas and Ben Nelson of Nebraska along with Representatives Mike Lee of Utah and Denny Rehberg of Montana. In what can only be considered a part of a stunning campaign of disinformation sponsored by the Farm Bureau, Senator Mike Lee of Utah sponsored the Saving the Family Farm Act of 2012. The family farm was never in danger.
Just as child labor was a sign of the social inequities of our Gilded Age, our child labor problem in agriculture exposes our own excesses. The failure of the Fair Labor Standards Act to protect children in agriculture has deep roots. Some say it was to protect the family farm (there is that term again), but when you look at history, you get closer to the heart of the truth when you understand that those who picked our crops then and now were the victims of racial and class exclusion. As Marjorie Elizabeth Wood pointed out in her excellent Op-Ed piece for the New York Times:
“This is not the first time reform of agricultural child labor laws has been beaten back by a supposed threat to the family farm. In the 1920s a proposed Child Labor Amendment to the Constitution was fiercely contested. The amendment would have given Congress power to regulate the labor of people under age 18. But by orchestrating a sophisticated campaign that included front groups with names such as Citizens’ Committee to Protect Our Homes and Children, business interests frightened farm families with propaganda about a government conspiracy to forbid chores on the family farm.”
In Fields of Peril, the 2010 report for Human Rights Watch, written by Zama Coursen-Neff and photographed by me, we again learned that agriculture is the most dangerous work open to children in the United States, where 12- to 16-year-olds—and on small farms children of any age—can be hired. These migrant and seasonal child farmworkers, who are at the heart of my recent documentary, The Harvest/La Cosecha, drop out of school at four times the national average, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and social failure. They suffer the same abuses that we do not tolerate anywhere else in the world.
So on this day where we acknowledge our commitment to eliminating the worst forms of child labor globally by 2016, the continued lack of support for the CARE Bill and this administration’s promise not to revisit the revised safety standards mean that the United States will continue to remain non-compliant, even though nearly 90% of Americans polled say that they would pay more for their food to in an effort to treat farmworkers better and end the cycle of poverty that continues to push our own children into the field.
Nelson Mandela once said “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
What I have known for a decade is that where children in American agriculture are concerned, the soul of America is languishing.
My friend Jason Guest sent me Proverbs 31:8-9 in an e-mail last week. It instructs us to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
On this day when we are asked to stand up for the children of the world, we need to ask ourselves: “where is our sense of grace when we say grace?” Let us remember and speak up for the American children who are sacrificing their futures so that we can eat.
In the Ivory Coast, the cocoa sector has long been known to be one of the most corrupt and abusive in the global commodities market. Controlled by the government, a small coterie close to the presidency and a handful of multinational corporations, the industry has long been dogged by charges of slavery, the worst forms of child labor, corruption and even murder.
In 2004, Canadian journalist Guy-André Kieffer disappeared without a trace while working on a story about money laundering and illegal currency transfers allegedly involving the Ivorian government. Much evidence suggests that the order to kidnap Kieffer came from the highest offices of the Ivorian government in an effort to prevent him from publishing. Six years later, we still know nothing about Kieffer’s fate. The authorities say they have no suspects, the only witness has vanished without a trace and the police investigation is stalled.
Now three Ivorian reporters – who have attempted to pick up where Kieffer left off – are in jail after they published a document concerning government corruption in the Coffee and Cocoa Bourse (BCC). Le Courrier Nouveau Managing Editor Stéphane Guédé, News Editor Théophile Kouamouo, and Editor-in-Chief Saint-Claver Oula are accused of stealing secrets as they refuse to reveal their source. This is a dangerous situation: journalists who reveal cocoa corruption in the Ivory Coast are often threatened by cocoa officials and sometimes killed. There is freedom of the press in the Ivory Coast, except when it’s inconvenient to the massive and influential cocoa industry.
The people of the Ivory Coast have waited five years for a fair and democratic election; Guy-André Kieffer’s family and friends have waited six years for justice to be served. Now three journalists have been jailed.
Who will be the next?
The Ivory Coast is the largest producer and exporter of cocoa in the world. Dedicated journalists have worked tirelessly to expose corruption, child trafficking, labor abuses, price fixing and allegations of criminal behavior by multinational corporations for many years. What can their future be after this? What protections will be afforded them as they to continue to do their job?
Today, when you eat a chocolate bar, think about the journalists who have worked in the Ivory Coast to stop corruption, child trafficking and labor abuses, Journalists who have been jailed, beaten and killed. Consider that with each bite, you eat away at their freedom.
See also The Dark Side of Chocolate
On Wednesday, September 15th, 2010, select scenes from the upcoming feature-length documentary, The Harvest/La Cosecha, were screened before Congress on Capitol Hill. This marks the anniversary of Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard’s introduction of the CARE Act legislation in September of 2009. The film shows what many in the United States find difficult to believe: that it is legal for American children aged 12 and sometimes younger to toil unlimited hours in near 100-degree heat, harvesting the fruits and vegetables that we eat in America today. U. Roberto Romano, who has worked for five years following the children in the film as they crisscross the nation working on the harvest, will address Congress on his experiences in the field. These are his notes.
In some states, some kids start as young as 7 or 8. They come with their parents out to the fields if there’s no one to take care of them or no summer school. They want to help, and their mom and dad need the money.
At 12 is when many kids really start to work. Full days, no messing around. Unlimited hours outside of school – it’s perfectly legal.
By 16, kids can do ANY job. This even means work that is classified as hazardous, like operating a tractor, other heavy equipment, chain saws, applying pesticides and other dangerous chemicals. In any other job, no one can do hazardous work until they turn 18. A kid who can’t slice ham at Subway can use a chain saw. A kid who can’t even get a job at Subway can hoe cotton all day long.
Long, unlimited hours
At the peak of the harvest, the day starts early, well before sunrise. Kids have told me about getting up at 4 am, helping make lunch, and hitting the road to drive out to the fields.
A morning break for breakfast, a half hour or so for lunch. A last break in the afternoon. Then working until dark. There’s no overtime pay. And no limits on how long kids can work.
At the end of the day there’s time for a shower and dinner to make. Then falling into bed until tomorrow.
Potentially dangerous equipment:
Kids work with sharp, heavy, and sometimes dangerous equipment. Like knives, clippers, scissors, hoes. Sometimes they get hurt.
In agriculture, once a child turns 16, he can do any job. This means work that is classified as hazardous, like operating a tractor, other heavy equipment, chain saws, applying pesticides and other dangerous chemicals. In any other job, no one can do hazardous work until they turn 18.
That’s the law, but even that’s not well enforced. I’ve talked with underage kids who told me they regularly used a chainsaw. The bar is so low and even that’s not enforced.
Agriculture is THE most dangerous job for kids in the US.
Heavy loads to carry
When kids are picking, they’re often carrying really heavy loads. Bags, buckets blueberries, boxes. This puts kids at risk of further injury, such as chronic neck and back pain.
AWKWARD, bending over/on your knees all day, stooping, etc.]
They’re under so much pressure to keep moving.
Young teens whose bodies are still growing are more vulnerable to musculoskeletal trauma than adults. Later in life their knees may be shot, their hands hurting, their backs out. And if they haven’t found a better job by then, it’s going to be hard to do farmwork.
Any protective gear or lack of (gloves, masks, boots)
Here in the pickle fields, you’re supposed to wear gloves. But many kids don’t. Sometimes they don’t have them. Other times they take them off – they’re often too big for kids. They’re clumsy, they can make you slip, and they slow you down. And the slower these kids pick, the less they get paid.
Work starts early, and the fields are often wet in the morning. Your shirt, your jeans get soaked. Then in the summer especially, it starts heating up.
It can get really hot out here many times over 100 degrees. When the crops are tall, there’s no breeze in the rows. They can get heat stroke, dehydration. Kids in Texas told me all they dreamed about was a job in the AC.
Here there is drinking water but in a lot of places people have to bring their own. Most people say they bring a lot, because if they run out, they run out.
On a hot day dehydration and heat stroke is risk. Remember the girl who died in Lodi a couple of years back.
Here there are toilets and a place to wash hands. But a lot of fields don’t have them. It’s a big problem, especially for girls. One woman told me it was so hot she never went at all during the day. You can imagine the risks – not wanting to drink, risking heat stroke and dehydration urinary track infections.
Washing hands is especially important because of pesticides. If people can’t wash their hands before they eat, they inject more.
In most fields there are pesticides. Under federal law, children can even apply the most dangerous pesticides once they’re 16. But before that, they’re going to have contact. There’s residue on the plants and the ground. Some kids say the pesticides makes them dizzy, gives them headaches.
People aren’t supposed to be in the fields when they are sprayed. The EPA sets a minimum amount of time workers have to be kept out of the field after spraying. But they set this time based on a 154 pound man. Not a child, not a pregnant teen or woman. The kids go right back in the same as a grown man.
In fact, some kids told me they have been sprayed. Others told me planes were spraying the next field and the wind blew the pesticides right over.
Kids’ bodies are so much more vulnerable than adults to pesticides but they’re treated just the same – no extra protections.
Pesticides can run off into these irrigation canals. But kids may not know it and may play or wash in the water. One boy told me he kept washing the mud off his shoes. Each time he got an itchy rash on his feet. And I haven’t interviewed any children who’ve gotten any training on pesticides.
Piece work/payment/division of funds within the family
The people here are getting paid by the hour. But in farmwork, many people are paid by piece rate.
That means, the more they pick, the more they get paid. This keeps the pressure going all the time, pick more, pick faster, take risks.
Fast workers can earn minimum wage, or even a little more. But younger kids and old people earn less, sometimes a lot less. Sometimes just a few dollars an hour.
Often the kids aren’t even registered – whatever they pick just goes into their parents check. So it looks like their parents are doing a little better per hour, when really the whole family worked for that check.
Then there are the other dirty tricks: pick the first flat for free, clock in after you pick the first bucket, pay the contractor for transport, buy water at a dollar a bottle when yours runs out. Some kids just told me that when they minimum wage goes up, they’ve been told they have to promise to give $30 back at the end of the week.
Kids leave school early to follow the harvest and many stay late, returning to school months after the first day. Many of these children attend two or more schools each year causing them to fall further and further behind.