Group works to reform labor laws for migrant children
By Naxiely Lopez
Article published on November 17, 2010
[From The Monitor, a South Texas newspaper. Got to the newspaper article by clicking here.]
SAN JUAN — It’s been almost half a century since migrant activist César Chávez began fighting for farmworkers’ rights.
And today, the battle is not over, especially when it comes to child labor laws, said Norma Flores Lopez, director of the national Children in the Fields campaign.
Launched in 1997 and funded by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), the Children in the Fields campaign seeks to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act — a federal law enacted in 1938 that allows children as young as 10 years old to work 30 hours a week or more in the fields, Lopez said.
The 25-year-old San Juan native now heads the initiative in Washington, D.C. She began working in the Iowa fields in the third grade.
“I never really put much thought to it when I was a kid,” Lopez said about working as a child. “To me it was a way of life and I thought every kid went through this. It never occurred to me that my life was very different from other kids. I just knew that I would come late (to school), we were living in poverty and I needed to help my parents.”
An estimated 400,000 children are currently employed in agriculture in the United States, according to the association, which advocates for migrants’ health and safety rights.
“Child labor law does not protect migrant seasonal workers, but it protects all other kids in all other industries,” said Noemi Ochoa, the AFOP Texas state coordinator.
Ochoa works closely with a youth council from the University of Texas-Pan American to raise awareness of what she calls an unfair law that puts children at risk.
“The law says that they must work under environmentally safe conditions,” she said. “Well, we all know that farm work is not environmentally safe.”
Children are exposed to harsh environmental elements, harmful pesticides and work with dangerous machinery and tools that children in other industries are not allowed to use, Ochoa said.
“A 16-year-old can drive a forklift (on a farm), whereas if you go to Home Depot or Lowes or Walmart they will not, by law, allow a 16-year-old to handle it. You’ve got to be 18 years old,” she said. “Agriculture is deemed one of the most dangerous industries by the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and the U.S. Department of Labor, and yet the law says it’s OK for children to be out there.”
The state coordinator understands that many children work because their families depend on their income, but it still doesn’t make it right, she said.
“It’s not right for these kids to be exposed to the elements at such a young age, especially to the chemicals because research has shown that it is hurting the kids — especially at the age of 11, 12, 13, and 14 — when kids are developing,” she said.
Children account for about 20 percent of all farm fatalities, according to a 2006 report released by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. That same year, more than 10,000 children were injured in farms.
In August, 8-year-old Margarito Cantu Jr., of Roma, was killed in Kidder County, N.D., after he was caught in a potato truck’s conveyor, Ochoa said. The Jamestown Sun newspaper reported the second-grader was entangled while his parents worked on the truck.
“This just shows the hazards children are exposed to,” Ochoa said.
AFOP helped the family with funds to bury the boy, but his family couldn’t afford to bury him in the Rio Grande Valley, so he was laid to rest in North Dakota, she said.
STRINKING A BALANCE
Claudia Garcia, an employee at La Union Del Pueblo Entero in Mission, traveled to Iowa this past summer to work in the corn fields with her dad and three younger brothers, ages 14, 16 and 18. The 26-year-old said her father was the only one who used to migrate, but after struggling to make ends meet, her family decided to travel and work together this past year.
“We just decided it would be something that would help my family’s economy because we were going through a really rough time — we still are,” she said. “My brothers started getting older and started asking for more things, and my dad decided maybe they should know how it is out there for him.”
Working in the fields was a harsh wake-up call for her and her three younger brothers, who were constantly getting in trouble in school, Garcia said. She remembers conditions were often very harsh. There was a day when the heat broke records in Williamsburg, Iowa and 21 people fainted in the fields, including her 14-year-old brother.
“They dehydrated,” she said. “It was so hot and you had to wear all of these clothes, but you would rather wear them because if you didn’t the leaves from the corn would cut you.”
In the morning, the workers would have to use plastic bags or ponchos to cover themselves because the dew would seep into their clothes and they’d end up drenched, she said.
“You wore whatever you had so that you could stay dry because when the sun dries the clothes later on in the day, the pollen and all of the chemicals start burning and itching a lot,” she said.
Workers would also wear sunglasses, a cap and a bandana around their mouths because the pollen and the chemicals in the pesticides, combined with the heat, would cause facial rashes, she added.
It is these same environmental hazards and mishaps that made Lopez, the campaign director, see child labor in a different perspective.
“I started thinking back about all of the times I saw kids getting hurt and staying behind in school, and then even finding out about some folks who started developing cancer,” she said. “Those were all the flags for me and why I believe so much in what I’m doing.”
But Garcia says the work was beneficial to her family.
“It helped my family a lot in so many ways,” she said about the work. “It just brought us closer as a family. It helped our economy and my brothers started to think about college after that.”
The Garcias, however, are a special case. They didn’t miss out on months of school each year, like many migrant children do. While it did motivate Garcia’s brothers to seek higher education, the work often leads to high dropout rates, Lopez said
U.S. Department of Education suggest half the youth who regularly perform farm work never graduate from high school, but AFOP estimates the non-completion rate is at least 65 percent.
“These are kids that are slipping through the cracks and continuing the cycle of poverty because they can’t get an education,” Lopez said.
Part of the initiative is to pass the CARE bill, short for Children’s Act for Responsible Employment, which would amend the federal law by bringing the age and work hour standards for children working in agriculture up to the standards set for all other forms of child labor. It would also increase the fines for child labor violations, which would serve as a deterrent for employers who constantly violate the laws, Ochoa said.
The bill would also require government agencies to keep a more accurate record of youth violations, illnesses and injuries, because the lack of data undermines the scope of the problem, she added.
“The U.S. advocates for Americans not to buy clothes that are made in India and Mexico because they’re made in sweatshops,” Ochoa said. “But who’s feeding you? You’re saying you can’t buy clothes from sweatshops and yet you’re eating vegetables and fruits every day that are harvested by children
12 years old and younger.”
Both Lopez and Ochoa say they’re only working for social justice that is long overdue for the people who can’t even afford to eat the crops they harvest.
“Have there been gains?” Ochoa asks. “Yes, there have been gains. Is there still a lot of work to be done?
Naxiely Lopez covers PSJA and general assignments for The Monitor. She can be reached at (956) 683-4434.