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Child Labor and Agribusiness Churn Washington’s Food Fight

10:13 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: Human Rights Watch

Cross-posted from In these Times

For a moment in Washington, it seemed like the White House was finally getting serious about reforming the agricultural labor system, with a common sense rule about preventing harm to child workers. But under pressure from the agribusiness lobby, the administration appears to have retreated from an initiative to tighten protection for childrens’ safety and health in agricultural jobs.

As we’ve reported previously, the move was seen by labor and child rights groups as a shameless pander to anti-regulatory forces in Washington. Activists have for years reported on the systematic exploitation of children on farms. Last year many hoped the Labor Department would finally respond to alarming injury and death rates by curbing the most hazardous forms of agricultural work for kids under 16, including restrictions on high-risk work in tobacco production, and limiting dangerous tasks involving certain farm equipment and animals.

Then advocates were distressed when the proposed reforms were held up under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget, the administration’s gatekeeper for regulatory proposals. The final affront came in April when the Labor Department announced that it was pulling the proposal in response to opposition from producers.

While the new rules would have explicitly exempted family farms, critics painted the measure as an assault on the rural way of life, glossing over the need to shield kids, many from migrant families, from the day-to-day brutality of industrial farm labor. The administration not only recycled these whitewashed arguments, but even scrubbed its own website of information explaining the proposal, according to the Pump Handle.

Actually, the migrant children in the fields today, facing severe poverty and limited educational opportunities, starkly represent how far modern industrial farming has drifted from the bygone bucolic ideal of the family farm. Read the rest of this entry →

Citing ‘Tradition,’ Big Ag Fights Reforms for Child Farmworkers

7:26 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Human Rights Watch,

Cross-posted from In These Times.

“[When I was 12] they gave me my first knife. Week after week I was cutting myself. Every week I had a new scar. My hands have a lot of stories.”

–17-year-old boy who started working at age 11 in Michigan (Human Rights Watch)

America’s farm workers have always had it tough, toiling for endless hours in the fields under brutal conditions. But those workers do benefit from a unique income subsidy in the country’s industrial farming system: children.

In every region of the country, bountiful harvests are regularly gathered by the tender hands of child poverty: several hundred thousand kids work on farms, often just to help their families survive. Those children who deliver crisp peppers and sweet grapes to the mouths of other kids every day represent the devastating social toll of the dysfunctional food industry.

The Child Labor Coalition, which advocates for the rights of exploited children around the world, documents a cornupcopia of abuses in the backyard of a global superpower:

•  More children die in agriculture than in any other industry.

•  According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), between 1995 and 2002, an estimated 907 youth died on American farms—that’s well over 100 preventable deaths of youth per year.

•  In 2011, 12 of the 16 children under the age of 16 who suffered fatal occupational injuries worked in crop production, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

•  When you include older children, more than half of all workers under age 18 who died from work-related injuries worked in crop production.

Advocates have for months been pressing the Labor Department to finalize a rule change that would help shield child farm workers from some of the most severe occupational hazards, such as handling pesticides and dangerous farm equipment, and would beef up protections for workers under age 16 (currently, children as young as 12 can legally work on farms, thanks to a loophole in federal labor law, and many younger ones have worked illegally, according to recent reports).

The reforms would largely impact youth in the migrant communities that fuel the agricultural labor force, filled with poor and Latino workers who are extremely vulnerable to abuse. Read the rest of this entry →

States Attempt to Instill ‘Work Ethic’ by Rolling Back Child Labor Protections

11:50 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Spinner in Whitnel, NC (Photo: Lewis Hine)

Cross-posted in The Nation.

It’s been a long time since the engines of American industry were driven by tiny fingers. So when Newt Gingrich recently proclaimed, “Young people ought to learn how to work,” and suggested that children could develop a strong work ethic by working as janitors in their own schools, many Americans probably missed the throwback to the early twentieth century, when hundreds of thousands of children toiled in factories. But after decades of campaigns against youth exploitation, the right is rekindling vestiges of the sweatshop era with legislation aimed at rolling back child labor laws.

While they didn’t go so far as to recruit tweens back to the factory floor, throughout 2011 state legislators pushed bills to erode regulation of youth employment. Maine Republicans sought to ease protections for young workers with amicably named legislation to “Enhance Access to the Workplace by Minors.” The original bill, introduced by State Representative David Burns, would remove some limits on working hours for teenagers and expand the number of days a youth under 20 could work for $5.25 an hour—to about half a year. That would be a bargain for employers, who pay adult Mainers a minimum wage of $7.50. Last summer, a more limited teen labor bill passed, which only eased restrictions on working hours.

Dismissing his bill’s critics in a Press-Herald commentary, Burns argued the purpose was simply to provide job-seeking youth valuable opportunities, since many “have no experience, and perhaps no work ethic, and don’t merit the minimum wage until they learn a job.” As for government safeguards against abuse, he added, “We have usurped the responsibility of families to make intelligent decisions and transferred that responsibility to school officials and the state.” Read the rest of this entry →

Food Industry Brings Bitter Harvest to Child Cocoa Laborers

2:55 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Image: International Labor Rights Forum)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

The taste of hot cocoa or a chocolate bar is one of the classic pleasures of being a kid. But chocolate is a bitter harvest for countless children in West Africa, who spend their days towing around machetes, hacking the cocoa pods that will be made into sweets for someone else’s kids.

Nestlé (best known in Africa for its baby formula-peddling scandal) recently announced that it would take stronger measures to check the exploitation of child labor in cocoa farming. The company has promised to cooperate with the Fair Labor Association to monitor its supply chain, and according to its press statement, this is a first in the food industry.

But evidence of child labor has been an open secret for years in the chocolate trade. And Nestle signed a protocol a decade ago committing it to stamping out these abuses. At this point, child workers in West Africa have been waiting for this supposed breakthrough for most of their lives.
According to investigations by academic researchers and the BBC, child workers are common in the cocoa sector, pressured by poverty, or sometimes outright trafficked, into hazardous working conditions, typically at the expense of their schooling. “At the same time,” Tulane University researchers observed:

…only a very small percentage of children and their caregivers  report exposure to project activities carried out by government agencies, industry and/or civil society organizations, including educational and vocational training activities, and remediation efforts, at any point in their lives.

The report called out the industry for falling far short of its targets for implementing  regulatory mechanisms to ensure ethical sourcing in the supply chain. Despite plenty of corporate social responsibility lip service, as of March 2011, the industry’s efforts to implement remediation activities–voluntary programs to address the most severe forms of child labor–had yet to reach about 70 percent of cocoa growing communities in Ghana, and a startling 96 percent in Cote D’Ivoire. Read the rest of this entry →