CLC Co-Chair’s Remarks Beore the Dept. of Ag Consultative Group

Monday, CLC co-chair and AFT Secretary-Treasurer Antonio Cortese spoke before the Department of Agriculture Consultative Group working on measures to eliminate the use of child labor in agricultural imports, urging the panel to design a system that will inform consumers about practices that abuse children in the production, processing and distribution of agricultural products imported into the United States. 

Statement of Antonio Cortese, Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers

Before the Consultative Group to Eliminate the Use of Child Labor and Forced Labor in Imported Agricultural Products

Foreign Agricultural Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Public Meeting

March 29, 2010

9:30 a.m.

USDA Headquarters, Jamie L. Whitten Building, Room 104-A

Good Morning, members of the Consultative Group.

I am Antonio Cortese, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers.  The AFT—which is the second-largest union in the AFL-CIO—represents more than 1.4 million pre-K through 12th-grade teachers; paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel; higher education faculty and professional staff; federal, state and local government employees; nurses and healthcare workers; and early childhood educators.  Our members work with children and youth every day in classrooms and many other settings, and we are very concerned about their well-being here and around the world.

I am also co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition, and a member of the board of trustees of Freedom House, a nonpartisan advocate for freedom and democracy in the world.

I am pleased to be with you today to discuss your important and essential mandate to develop a program aimed at eliminating child labor in our agricultural imports and to implement a monitoring system that will provide American consumers with assurance that they are not unwittingly supporting the exploitation of children when they go grocery shopping or through other everyday purchases.  The focus of my remarks today will be on child labor – because that is an issue with which I have been personally involved and because of the AFT’s focus on the interests of children.

Around the world, 70 percent of all child labor is in agriculture, according to information collected by the World Bank.  Partly this is because fewer agricultural workers are organized into unions or other representative associations that can help monitor labor practices.  It is also because the large number of workplaces (every individual farm) makes working conditions more difficult to monitor than in a factory.  Adding to the difficulty is the fact that many agricultural workers are exempt from coverage by their nation’s labor laws because they work on a temporary, contract or seasonal basis.  We have experience with this situation in the United States.

Section 3205 of the Food and Energy Security Act – the Farm Bill – has assigned this body the task of addressing those difficulties and establishing a voluntary, independent, third-party monitoring and verification system that will make it possible to certify whether an agricultural product imported and sold in the United States is produced with the use of forced labor or child labor.  To accomplish this, you have undertaken a process that seeks to give voice to all stakeholders in the complex international agricultural production and supply chain.  Those who will appear before you today reflect your success in engaging a wide array of interests and advocates.  They include: human rights and faith organizations; labor unions and other worker representatives; consumer advocates; and agricultural businesses.

You may ask why the American Federation of Teachers is here today.  Why are we involved with this issue?  First, as I have said, by the very nature of their work, our members have a strong commitment to the well-being of children.  That includes supporting action that will protect children from abusive and unsafe working conditions.  Just as important, it includes our advocacy for educational opportunities for all children around the globe.  These child workers should be in schools – not being used as cheap labor.

Second, our members and their families comprise millions of American consumers who want to be able to make informed purchasing decisions.  We believe – and numerous surveys have confirmed – that most U.S. consumers do not want cheap goods if they come at the cost of forcing children to work or other abuses.  The idea behind the monitoring system we support is to place information about agricultural products and their involvement with child labor before consumers and allow the market to work.  I can assure you that the AFT will be aggressive about informing our members.  Once consumers have ready access to reliable information about the use of child labor, most of them will avoid products brought to market with such practices.  We are confident that consumer choice will drive the effort to end child labor, and those free market decisions will also drive changes in business practices that allow child labor to continue.

We are not asking for a ban on any product or commodity—we simply asking for the consumer to be informed.  For the market to work properly and efficiently, consumers need information.  This is the tool that keeps the market functioning.

In addition, the AFT has a long record of active opposition to child labor.  As the members of this body are no doubt aware, in February AFT President Randi Weingarten called on Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to take immediate steps to close the U.S. market to chocolate made with cocoa that is produced with child labor.  The AFT also has been a sponsor of the Fair Trade movement, which helps farming families across Latin America, Africa and Asia to improve the quality of life in their communities through a program that certifies that commodities are produced under fair labor conditions and that producers receive a fair price, among other things.

I know a little bit about Fair Trade because as an officer of the New York State United Teachers, before being elected to the AFT’s national leadership, I advocated for NYSUT support for the Fair Trade movement.  The New York teachers developed classroom curriculum materials that address Fair Trade principles.

I want to briefly address what a workable monitoring system might look like. To accomplish the mission of significantly reducing the use of child labor in agricultural products imported into the United States, the system you develop should, at a minimum, include these features:

  • It should establish a reliable certification program for agricultural products.
  • All stages of the supply chain should be subject to traceability and inspection requirements.
  • There should be annual on-site inspections of each farm and handling operation by a certification body or agent.
  • It should allow for multi-stakeholder participation.
  • There should be a comprehensive conflict of interest policy for certification bodies and agents.  To be credible, the monitoring and certification system must be independent.
  • It should include an anonymous grievance procedure that is open to third-parties. This would allow for new or continuing violations to be identified, and it would provide protections for whistle-blowers.


The Department of Agriculture has decades of experience and expertise with such monitoring and certification programs.  One of the most analogous is the National Organic Program developed to reliably identify organically produced agricultural products in the marketplace.  The USDA inspection programs for meat, eggs and other commodities provide other examples of existing systems that may inform this body’s work.

As you move ahead with this effort, you will hear from others about why the goal of ending child labor abuses is unachievable, or how the work is too difficult or impractical.  Some will say that they are just innocent purchasers of products and have only limited or no means of knowing whether child labor was involved somewhere in the supply chain.  I would suggest to you that there are no innocent bystanders in a chain of commerce that is linked to the abuse of children.  And the system we advocate will provide the information that responsible businesses and ethical consumers need.  You will hear that such a monitoring system is impractical and cannot work because of the sheer number of producers and the millions of farms that make up the supply chain.  I would suggest to you that we must make a start.  And once a monitoring system is implemented, we are likely to learn that it is not as impractical as predicted.  And all the stakeholders in this process have a responsibility to take steps that will reduce the likelihood that products made with child labor ever make it into the stream of American commerce.

I want to leave you today with someone else’s words on the scourge of child labor.  They are from a speech last year by Senator Tom Harkin, a longtime leader in the effort to end this abusive practice around the world.  Senator Harkin—the former chairman of the Senate’s Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee—and I were in Geneva, Switzerland last June to speak to the International Labor Organization.  On that occasion, he noted that the ILO had declared that “abusive and exploitative child labor is one of those uniquely offensive practices—like slavery—that is never acceptable, never excusable.”  He went on to describe the plight of many child workers:  “These children endure long hours of hard labor, with little or no pay.  They are denied an education, and deprived of normal growth and development.   They are children stripped of their childhood.”

Once again, I commend you for taking on this important task.  And as the process moves forward, I hope we can all resolve together that we will do what is necessary to allow children to be children—which includes going to schools where they can receive the education that will boost the economic growth and development of their nations.

Thank you.


Bitter plight of the vanilla trade children

From The Sunday Times

March 14, 2010

Bitter plight of the vanilla trade children

Dan McDougall in the Vanilla Coast, Madagascar

 The pods used in ice cream made by some of the world’s best-known brands is produced with the help of children working on plantations in remote regions of Madagascar

NOARY’S fingers are stained a thin, luminous yellow by the sweetest spice of all. Close to exhaustion, his tiny body is pouring with tropical sweat.

At eight years old, he has been tending the vanilla orchids since before first light after walking to work, barefoot and in darkness, alongside his brother, Ando, just a year older.

Here, in the remote Sava region of Madagascar, tens of thousands of children are being forced into the trade in black vanilla pods that sell for up to £4 each in British supermarkets.

Such is the dire state of the small farms in northern Madagascar, the vanilla capital of the world, that children are increasingly involved in production of the pods, a key ingredient of some of the world’s most famous ice cream brands.

Vanilla from the island, off the southeast coast of Africa, flavours everything from Magnum and Ben & Jerry’s to Marks & Spencer desserts and numerous items on the shelves of supermarkets.

In an impoverished settlement near Sambava, the district capital on the Vanilla Coast of northeastern Madagascar, small growers sell their pods to the Société Vanille de Sambava, a consortium that supplies big exporters through auctions held twice a year.

“We work for six to seven hours a day from dawn,” Noary said at his tiny family plantation in Anjombalava, 12 miles to the south of the city.

Each morning, seven days a week, the brothers tend a patch of land no larger than a few tennis courts.

“Many of my friends work in the fields around here. We don’t go to school. I work with my family. Close to the harvest time we all have to sleep alongside the plants to protect them. Ants cover our bodies.”

In the nearest plantation, 500 yards away, three more children toil in the heat. Jarro Claude, 12, has been working the vanilla since he was five: “Most of my friends in the villages here work in the fields. As a family, we all have to work. My brothers never went to school and I don’t think I ever will either.”

According to the UN’s International Labour Organisation and the US Department of Labour, nearly 2m children are at work on the island when they should be at school. A Department of Labour report last year said the vanilla children earned on average less than 8p per day.

Unicef, which is working in Madagascar to promote children’s rights, estimates that 28% of children between five and 17 work, mainly in fishing and agriculture.

“Many of these children are being denied their right to an education and are losing their childhoods. This is wrong,” it said.

Madagascar’s government is weak and corrupt. Many foreign governments refuse to recognise the military-backed regime in Antananarivo, the capital. In its coastal areas, the country seems to be in a time warp, the fishermen returning by dugout canoe to huts of mud and reeds, lit by lanterns and without running water.

On the land, vanilla is no longer regarded as a guaranteed source of healthy income. Despite the international demand, prices have fallen from $600 a kilo six years ago to around $20 a kilo today in a flooded market and small growers are seeing their living standards plummet.

Two dozen growers interviewed in Sambava claimed they had been forced to rely on their children for unpaid work in the fields.

“We still haven’t been paid for last year’s crop,” said Dhiarry, the father of Noary and Ando. “My children must work. This is a small plantation, we have to work as a family to put money on the table. Perhaps we can sell 10 kilos at $300 — less than a dollar a day to feed a family of seven.”

Their plight is all the more acute because vanilla cultivation is so labour-intensive.

Vanilla flowers are hand pollinated by fécondeuses, women and children whose task it is to pass between the rows of vines daily, no matter what the weather. Their diligence can make or break a crop. The transformation of these green, scent-free pods into glossy, aromatic beans involves a string of painstaking procedures.

For about five months the pods are alternately baked, sweated, wrapped in woollen blankets and laid out in the sun before being readied for export in metal boxes lined with greaseproof paper.

According to Stephane Ramananarivo, of Foko, a charity that highlights the plight of small farmers, vanilla growers should be reaping the benefits of the West’s hunger for their luxurious product.

“The poor vanilla farmers are suffering more than ever,” he said. “Yet they should be emancipated by the startling popularity of the pods. Their children should be going to school and not going to bed hungry.”

Real vanilla has never been more popular in the West. Marketing by leading UK supermarkets, including Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, has turned Madagascan vanilla into a symbol of quality, distinct from synthetic flavouring in cheaper foods.

But although leading retailers and manufacturers impose strict ethical standards on their suppliers, many in the trade believe they cannot monitor the work of farmers further down the chain who might be resorting to child labour.

Madagascan vanilla can be found in 25 Marks & Spencer products from yoghurts to biscuits. An M&S spokeswoman said the supply chain was highly complex but would be investigated. “M&S is a tiny user of vanilla,” she said. “Nonetheless, we are determined to do everything we can to bring fair sourcing principles to all stages of our supply chain.”

Spokesmen for Waitrose, Sainsbury and Tesco also promised to investigate, insisting that their suppliers guaranteed not to rely on children.

Tesco said: “Child labour is completely unacceptable and we make it clear to all our suppliers that it will not be tolerated in our supply chain.”

A spokeswoman for Unilever, which uses Madagascan vanilla pods for both Magnum and Ben & Jerry’s, two of Britain’s most popular premium ice creams, said it had no direct responsibility for auditing vanilla production on the island but child labour was unacceptable.

She said: “Ben & Jerry’s recent announcement about using all Fairtrade-certified ingredients by the end of 2013 demonstrates Unilever’s commitment to implementing values-led sourcing.”

Sweeping in from the grey-green swell of the Indian Ocean, a violent cloudburst opened up above Sambava. In its wake mothers and daughters in their floral Sunday best skipped through red-earth puddles to church, their straw hats and fancy French parasols flapping hopelessly in gale force winds.

As we walked through their vanilla plantation later, Dhiarry shouted at his sons to hurry up and stop talking. He knows that if his vanilla crop fails, his family will be plunged even deeper into debt.

Next month is the Famadihana — the Malagasy turning of the dead, when the bones of ancestors are removed and wrapped in a fresh shroud before being taken around the village to assure the living that all is well.

According to Dhiarry, this year’s ceremony will be fraught with sadness: “Life is harder for us than our ancestors. There are so many outsiders here now. Our livelihoods are stolen from us by vanilla suppliers who cheat us. We have nothing to celebrate.”


Teen Dumping Trash Dies In Cesspool–Doughnut Shop Employee Fell In Uncovered Hole

[This tragedy is eerily reminiscent of a teen worker drowning in a septic tank in my home town, Holliston, Massachusetts, nearly 30 years ago. The young worker stepped on a manhole cover which flipped beneath him and he landed in a septic tank. No one knew what had happened to him and the police only recovered his body through the help of a psychic . –Reid]

SMITHTOWN, N.Y. — A teenage worker taking out the garbage at a doughnut shop Sunday night fell into a sewage pit and died, police said.

Amiri Zeqiri, 17, slipped into an open cesspool behind a Dunkin’ Donuts in Smithtown, about 40 miles east of New York City, police said. There usually was a manhole cover over the cesspool, a hole in the ground that collects waste from toilets and sinks, they said.

The teen’s younger cousin, who was inside the doughnut shop, realized something was wrong when he didn’t return and went to look for him. The cousin found Zeqiri in about 8 feet of water and ran to a nearby store for help, but when he returned the teen was no longer visible, police said.

Officers pulled the teen from the cesspool and took him to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Authorities were investigating how the cesspool was uncovered and were awaiting the results of an autopsy.

Andrew Mastrangelo, a spokesman for Dunkin’ Donuts’ parent company, Canton, Mass.-based Dunkin’ Brands Inc., said the company and franchisee Jesse Walia, were saddened to learn of the death.

“This tragedy impacts all of us at Dunkin’ Donuts, especially those who had the pleasure to work with him on a daily basis,” Mastrangelo said. He said Walia declined to comment.

It’s not the first time someone has died in a Long Island cesspool — typically a large hole in the ground lined with rocks to filter the sewage before it’s absorbed into the earth and usually covered with a lid.

In June 2007, a landscaper was killed after driving a lawnmower into one at a Deer Park home. In July 2006, a worried woman who went to check on her 76-year-old aunt found her buried in a 10-foot-deep cesspool in the front yard of her Huntington home.

And in September 2001, a Huntington man practicing archery in his backyard with his children died when an 18-foot-deep cesspool caved in and swallowed him.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press.