Tragic Story of Deaths in a Grain Bin Highlights the Need for Increased Safeguards and Larger Fines

Twenty-five to 30 kids a year die at work. Through its advocacy and co-chairmanship of the Child Labor Coalition, the National Consumers League (NCL) has worked to reduce that number over the years. Each spring, NCL produces a report called “The Five Most Dangerous for Teens.” For several years, we worked to help enact proposed rules to protect kids working in agriculture. Last April, working through the CLC and its members we helped organize a press conference to highlight the dangers that young workers can encounter while working on farms and agricultural facilities.

Unfortunately, the organized farm lobby succeeded in forcing the Obama administration to withdraw the youth farm safety rules—a decision that we estimate will lead to the unnecessary deaths of 50 to 100 youth working on farms over the next decade.

This week, we heard the sobering story on National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System’s News Hour each featured in-depth stories about a particularly lethal type of agricultural work: labor in grain silo facilities, which in a typical year kills 15 or more workers. According to recent data, 20 percent of the victims of grain engulfments are young workers.

NPR and PBS worked with the Center for Public Integrity, highlighting a terrible tragedy in Mount Carroll, Illinois nearly three years ago. Two teens, “running down the corn,” were engulfed by grain and killed while working in a silo: 14-year-old Wyatt Whitebread and 19-year-old Alex Pacas. Will Piper, a 20-year-old co-worker, barely escaped with his life because someone threw him a bucket that he was able to put over his head. The bucket prevented the flowing grain from asphyxiating him. Today, Piper lives in guilt because he found the job that killed his best friend Alex.

Among the worst aspects of the Whitebread-Pacas accidentally deaths, which we highlighted in our April 2012 press conference, are the facts that Wyatt, at 14, was too young to be doing such dangerous work. He and Alex also should have been wearing safety harnesses as they walked on top of the crusty grain trying to loosen it. The facility possessed the mandatory harnesses that would have saved the boys lives, but did instruct or compel the teens to wear them.

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The CLC’s and Cotton Campaign’s Protest of the Use of Forced Child Labor and Adult Labor in Uzbekistan’s Cotton Fields


When you are a child labor activist, you spend a surprising amount of time sitting at your desk writing emails and blogs or in meetings with federal officials and others concerned about child labor. Opportunities for street activism are not common, but earlier this month, the members of the Child Labor Coalition and the Cotton Campaign hit the streets for a protest (video) in Washington, D.C. to send the government of Uzbekistan a message: stop the forced labor of a million-plus children and adults in your annual cotton harvest.

Every year, Uzbekistan’s ruling elite forces children and adults – students, teachers, nurses, doctors, public servants and private sector employees  –  to pick cotton under appalling conditions. Those who refuse are expelled from school, fired from their jobs, denied public benefits, or worse. Some harvesters have reported being beaten because they did not meet their cotton quota.

Uzbekistan’s government is unique in its complicity in bringing out about widespread forced labor. The country is one of the largest cotton producers in the world, and Uzbek cotton sometimes finds its way into the U.S. apparel industry. More than 130 apparel companies have signed a pledge that they will not knowingly use Uzbek cotton in their garments.

Despite this widespread concern in the apparel industry and intensifying scrutiny from non-government organizations all over the world, the regime, led by dictator Islam Karimov, has steadfastly refused to abandon forced labor in the country’s cotton fields. Still, persistent pressure from activists may have altered the harvest a little. This year for the first time, fewer schools with young students were closed and fewer young students were compelled to harvest cotton. However, an even greater number of teens and young adults were forced to go to the fields and work for pennies an hour under conditions that are often very difficult.

It’s not always easy to get the attention of one of the world’s most brutal dictators, but that’s what the advocacy community did during New York City’s Fashion Week in September 2011, when several CLC members and the Cotton Advocacy Network successfully pressured event organizers into ousting Uzbekistan’s Gulnara Karimova from the prestigious fashion show. A designer and, at the time, an Uzbek diplomat, Gulnara is the daughter of Uzbekistan’s brutal leader Islam Karimov. Gulnara’s fashion line was the perfect vehicle for highlighting the abuses of her father’s regime because cotton is a common component in many clothing items. Thanks to our protest, Gulnara was forced to move her fashion show to a private restaurant where attendees and the media were met with our chants and picketing.

Flash forward 16 months and the Cotton Campaign learned that Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov was about to visit Washington, DC to seek increased support from the U.S. government for Uzbekistan. Rumor has it that Uzbekistan wants the U.S. to leave behind hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military equipment when the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan.

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