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We must not leave farmworker women out of the harassment discussion

By Norma Flores López

Today’s headlines and top hashtags are showing that a powerful movement is building, and its being led by women.

Women–fed up with the constant attack on our bodies, the sexual harassment prevalent throughout our communities and centuries-long inequities in our homes, at the workplace and in the voting booth– are saying, “Enough.” They are displaying courage by organizing, sharing their powerful stories, casting their votes, and creating an effect that can be felt in the halls of Congress, on the movie sets of Hollywood, and through the airwaves. This movement against misogyny and sexual harassment is indeed powerful. It has made influential men step down from their long-held positions of power, it has stopped an accused pedophile from being elected into the Senate, and even made it to the cover of Time magazine.

And we’re just getting started.

We have seen this type of grassroots movement before–a seismic shift in the power paradigm of society, moving us closer and closer towards equity. Yet, we have never achieved the full promise of equality. The work is left halfway done, and we can’t allow this to happen again. We need to make sure that the movement is able to reach the darkest corners of society, in the marginalized communities where the most vulnerable women work and live. 

For me, this is in the fields.

I grew up in a migrant farmworker family, where I was taught at a young age the power men held over me. Sexual harassment wasn’t the only kind we experienced. The boss had the power to protect me, but also the power to destroy me. A lifetime of hard work earned my father a position of leadership in most of the fields we worked in, which he used to protect his wife and five daughters. While most women endured cat calls, inappropriate prepositions and harassment, we were spared. Still, we knew the dangers that lurked out there and took no chances. My sisters and I never walked to the portable bathrooms (when they were available) by ourselves, making sure a few of us were always together. We never went anywhere by ourselves, in the fields or on the migrant camp. Ever. 

Norma speaks frequently about the struggle to protect child farmworkers. Here she help introduce the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment with actress and activist Eva Longoria and others.

While my father did his best to shield us from these dangers, there were seasons that he wasn’t in charge and our family was separated. We were divided into different teams, each completing different tasks in different fields at any given moment. My mother and I mostly stuck together, and for years, we were in a team under the charge of a middle-aged white man who spoke no Spanish and made it known that he didn’t want to be there. As the season wore on, the work days got longer and his temper got shorter. He became a terror to all of the women working with him. It boiled over and from one day to the next, I became the focus of his fury. I was responsible for the team not completing the work at the pace he wanted. I was responsible for the mistakes made by my teammates. I was responsible for everything that went wrong in the fields. For all of this, I deserved his abuse. He began to hurl insults, curse words, and racial slurs on a daily basis, often at the top of his lungs for everyone in the fields to hear. My mother would stare at me in disbelief and fear, desperate to understand what was happening and to understand his English. “¿Qué te dice, Norma? ¿Qué pasa? (What is he saying? What’s happening?)” she would repeatedly ask me. “Nada, mami,” I would reply, trying to hide the hurt and fear in my voice.

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CLC News Release: Legislation to Protect Child Farmworkers in the US is Re-Introduced

CHILD LABOR COALITION PRESS RELEASE
Child Labor Coalition applauds the introduction of two congressional bills to reduce dangerous child labor in U.S. agriculture

For immediate release: June 13, 2017
Contact: Reid Maki, (202) 207-2820, reidm@nclnet.org

Washington, DC—The Child Labor Coalition (CLC) and its 35 members applaud the re-introduction late yesterday of two congressional bills that would significantly reduce child labor in U.S. agriculture and largely equalize child labor laws for wage-earning children on farms with current rules for non-farm work.

In the U.S., many teens who work in tobacco fields wear plastic garbage bags to try to avoid nicotine poisoning. [Photo courtesy Human Rights Watch]

In the U.S., many teens who work in tobacco fields wear plastic garbage bags to try to avoid nicotine poisoning. [Photo courtesy Human Rights Watch]

In the House of Representatives, Rep. Roybal-Allard (D-CA) re-introduced the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE), which would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act, removing the exemptions that prevent the nation’s child labor laws from applying to children who work for wages on farms.

“A 12-year-old is not allowed to work in our air-conditioned office,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League and a co-chair of the CLC. “Yet, that same child is allowed to work unlimited hours, seven days a week on a farm, performing back-breaking work.”

CARE would also raise the age at which children laboring on farms can perform hazardous work from 16 to 18, which is the norm for all non-farm work. “We lose far too many children to work accidents on farms,” said CLC Coordinator Reid Maki. “This change is long overdue.”

“Child farmworkers work at far younger ages, for longer hours, and under more hazardous conditions than children are allowed to work in any other industry. It’s time to end this double standard in U.S. law and ensure they have the same protections as other working youth,” said CLC-member Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

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110 Groups Urge President Obama to Ban Child Labor in US Tobacco

August 3, 2016

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

In August 2014, dozens of organizations counting millions of Americans among their members wrote to you, alarmed at reports of acute nicotine poisoning and other health and safety hazards faced by children working in US tobacco fields. We are writing again regarding measures you should take to protect these vulnerable children before you leave office in January 2017.

On May 5, the FDA announced new regulations prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes to children under the age of 18. In announcing the new regulations, the Secretary of Health and Human Services stated, “We’ve agreed for many years that nicotine does not belong in the hands of children.” We agree. Yet US law allows children as young as 12, and in some cases even younger, to work in direct contact with tobacco in US tobacco fields and curing barns. There are no regulations or special provisions in place to protect child tobacco workers from exposure to nicotine and awareness raising efforts have limited effect given that the extreme poverty many tobacco farming families experience is the principle reason these children work in the tobacco fields at all.

201512_crd_us_tobacco_photo_2The health risks tobacco farm workers face are considerable, leaving workers vulnerable to heat stroke and green tobacco sickness. The majority of these workers are seasonal/migrant workers who have little access to mechanisms that would hold growers accountable for conditions in the fields, and often few options but to bring children to work. The health consequences of tobacco work are worse for children than they are for adults, because children’s smaller bodies absorb proportionately more nicotine than adults. There are long-term developmental repercussions as well. Children who work in direct contact with tobacco leaves risk acute nicotine poisoning, and may experience symptoms including vomiting, nausea, headaches and dizziness. A widely-reported 2014 study by Human Rights Watch found that the majority of the 141 child tobacco workers interviewed had experienced the sudden onset of symptoms consistent with nicotine poisoning while working in fields of tobacco plants and curing barns in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.

Public health research has found that non-smoking adult tobacco workers have similar levels of nicotine in their bodies as smokers in the general population. Although the long-term effects of nicotine absorption through the skin have not been studied, research on smoking finds that nicotine exposure during adolescence has been associated with mood disorders and problems with memory, attention, impulse control, and cognition later in life.

In the last two years, both U.S. tobacco growers’ associations and major companies in the tobacco industry have made some progress in acknowledging that children should not be working on tobacco farms. The Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina and the Council for Burley Tobacco, which collectively represent approximately half of all US tobacco growers, have adopted policies stating that children under age 16 should not be hired to work on tobacco farms. The two largest US-based tobacco companies, Altria Group and Reynolds American, now prohibit their suppliers from employing children under the age of 16. Companies including Philip Morris International have publicly called for US regulatory action to back up these voluntary commitments.

The safety and health of child tobacco workers is just as important as teens who may be tempted by e-cigarettes. We urge you to take immediate action to protect these vulnerable children, through the following:

1) Immediate regulations to ban children from working in direct contact with tobacco: A critical first step the administration can take to protect child tobacco workers is for the Department of Labor (DOL) to issue a hazardous occupation order that specifically prohibits children from working in direct contact with tobacco. In 2011 the DOL issued proposed regulations to update the list of tasks too dangerous for children under age 16 employed in agriculture, including “all work in tobacco production and curing, including, but not limited to such activities as planting, cultivating, topping, harvesting, baling, barning, and curing.” Intense opposition to the regulations mischaracterized them as applying to family farms and focused on specific elements, including the use of tractors and certain tools. In 2012, the administration withdrew the proposed regulations.

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Len Morris: Our Kids Are Watching Us

For the first time in more than a year, Democrats and Republicans have begun to speak mistily about the prospects for our children’s future.

“With every word we utter, with every action we take, we know our kids are watching us. Kids look to us to determine who and what they can be.”       –Michelle Obama

Words alone don’t matter. What actions can the Congress and President take immediately to improve the lives of American children?

Human Rights Watch has reported extensively on health hazards of children working in the American Tobacco Industry. Voluntary policies to eliminate child labor in tobacco are insufficient and carry no force of law. The Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act (S.974/H.R.1848) should be passed by Congress and signed into law. The medical evidence is overwhelming; children have no business handling tobacco. This bill should take five minutes to pass, about the same amount of time it takes to read. Pass this Bill now, in the lame duck Congressional session in September.

CLC-member Len Morris of Media Voices for Children

CLC-member Len Morris of Media Voices for Children

If we’re going to protect children in the fields who pick tobacco, why not protect all children who work in American agriculture whose lives and educations are put on hold and whose health is compromised by 12-hour days of work in one of the most dangerous occupations in the country? The Children’s Care Act for Responsible Employment (HR2764) has had the support of over a hundred national organizations and dozens of House members but has failed to find a single United States Senator willing to champion them by sponsoring legislation in the Senate. And so every day, in every state of our union, hundreds of thousands of children pick our fruits and vegetables, exposed to pesticides. With a 60% drop-out rate from school, they are utterly poor and equally vulnerable… a target for human traffickers.

After 80 years of delay, it’s long past time for the Congress and President to amend the 1939 law that ended child labor in America. Adults should work in the fields and make a living wage; children belong in school. It’s time for The Care Act to be sponsored in the Senate so this legislation has an opportunity to pass. Why wait – what’s to be gained by more delay? Do this in September.

 

Over 65,000 young people, who were brought as children to this country by their parents in search of a better life, live each year in the shadow of deportation and are unable enroll in school, find work or pursue normal lives. For years, Congress has failed to pass multiple versions of The Dream Act, a bipartisan supported Bill that would enable Dreamers to qualify to remain in America, live and work and contribute to America, including service in our military. This bill is not an amnesty, it’s a pathway to legitimacy for young adults guilty only of being brought here as children.

While Congress talks itself to death, America loses out on the economic potential of some of our brightest children. One UCLA report found that Dreamers would add between 1.4 to 3.6 trillion dollars to the American economy during their work lives. The Congressional Budget Office sees the national deficit reduced by 1.4 billion dollars as the Bill reduces and focuses the costs of border security to those individuals who constitute a real and violent threat to our society. But mostly, The Dream Act is a simple test of American values. Can we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes? Can we find the empathy we need to make room at our table for children, who are in fact our schoolmates, our neighbors, our soldiers? Now is the time to pass the Dream Act because it’s the right thing to do for those children but for also ourselves, as an expression of our own humanity.

“We don’t chase fame and fortune for ourselves, we fight to give everyone a chance to succeed, because we always know there is someone who is worse off and there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

                                        –Michelle Obama

Children’s rights are human rights and human rights are children’s rights, that’s the point of the 1995 treaty, The Convention on the Rights of the Child. Every nation on earth, except the United States, has adopted the Convention, a landmark document of utter simplicity that sets out the kind of world we should all aspire to for all children. While President Clinton signed the Treaty in 1995, no American President has ever submitted it to the United States Senate for its required “advise and consent”. Over the years, objections to the Convention came from those upset that it prohibits either juvenile execution or life sentences, positions upheld by The United States Supreme Court. Home-school advocates have objected to the Convention’s requirement for mandatory public education. But the actual issue preventing adoption has always been American exceptionalism, the feeling that we shouldn’t agree to any treaty binding our behavior on the global stage.
U.S.+Child+Labor

President Obama, here is an easy addition to your legacy. Send this Convention on to the Senate and make a strong statement about children’s human rights. By doing the right thing, you’d re-energize the debate about the welfare of children around the world and at home. You’d set an example and force the Senate to look into its heart. With Somalia’s ratification last year, America has the distinction of being the ONLY country to not ratify The Convention on the Rights of the Child…. and what a distinction that is… to sit on the sidelines and pretend we care about values we’re unwilling to adopt and publicly support. If we mean what we say about championing children interests, then adopting the CRC is the right thing to do.

President Obama, don’t leave office without sending this Treaty on to the Senate. Do it now.Children sickened by tobacco, children working illegally in America’s fields, children whose lives are on hold and live threatened by deportation, a world where the value and rights of children are ignored by the greatest democracy on earth. Is this the world we want for our children?

“Words and actions matter… With every word we utter and every action we take, we know our kids are watching us. “Michelle Obama

Len Morris of Media Voices for Children received the Iqbal Masih Award from the Department of Labor in 2012 for his work to end the worst forms of child labor.

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