By Len Morris
If we are to have a government worthy of the America Jimmy Stewart described in his famous role as Senator Jefferson Smith, we’ll need champions in government that will protect those who are the weakest and most vulnerable among us – our children.
Today, hundreds of thousands of children work in America’s fields doing dangerous, unhealthy and adult work from sunrise to sunset…many under 14 years of age. They need a champion, one senator out of a hundred, who will step forward to protect them by introducing a law outlawing child labor in America’s fields, revising and repealing a law that’s been on the books since 1939, when America was a different place and American farms were small family affairs, not the corporate agribusiness of today.
The invisible children in our fields are victims of greed, racism and violated human liberties.
Greed is the driver, enabling companies to make huge profits at the expense of children’s health. Under current US law, child tobacco workers can be and are exposed to nicotine poisoning and the carcinogens of deadly pesticides. These kids’ human rights are violated with little notice or political consequence.
Meanwhile, politicians look the other way and pretend it’s not happening as they collect campaign contributions from those same companies. Senators and Representatives have somehow lost their voice when the constituent is a child who cannot vote.
It’s also a simple fact of life in America that the majority of children in our fields are of Latino heritage. Why should their race matter? Why aren’t we aggressively protecting all children… without regard to race, color or creed?
Every year, hundreds of thousands of children migrate and work with their families in 48 states, picking the food we eat in harsh conditions.
They are American citizens, born here, and working to help their families get by because farm work is the lowest paid occupation in America. Five or six family members can work in the broiling sun for $200 a day, as little as $2 an hour.
Migrant child laborers leave school early, return late in the year and have an 80% drop out rate from high school. Instead, our economy loses the income that an educated worker would have produced.
Child labor in American agriculture violates international treaties the United States authored and signed.
Today, while the Care Act (Children’s Act for Responsible Employment) has sponsors and co-sponsors in the House, 100 Senators sit on the sidelines. While members of the House have consistently worked to protect America’s child farm workers, the Senate has not introduced a bill to protect them since 2001.
Who will step up for these children? Not just those in the fields today, but the generations before and those to follow … not thousands of children, millions of children.
What’s needed is one champion, willing to break with the politics of the day, and show some empathy and humanity, a champion who will rise above politics and do the right thing.
Len Morris is a journalist/filmmaker and advocate for children. In 2012, he received the Iqbal Masih Award from the Department of Labor for extraordinary efforts to end the worst forms of child labor. This piece was originally published on the Media Voices for Children web site on June 14th, 2016.