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My Path from Strawberry and Blueberry Fields to College

By Alma Hernandez

Imagine being a five-year-old child; happy and carefree. The age where you either attend pre-k or start kindergarten. But can you imagine a five-year-old working in farm fields in hot 90-degree humid weather with her parents? I was that child. I wore a long-sleeved shirt, jeans, closed-toed shoes, and a hat to protect me from the hot sun. At five years old, I was unaware of how difficult agricultural labor is. My mom had enrolled me at the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA), a Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program, but she also wanted to teach me to value my education. 

My mother’s life lesson started during the weekend after I did not want to wake up for school. My mother remembers that I was full of confidence when asked if I wanted to go to work with her and my father. However, I did not know what was in store for me. 

Alma Hernandez (far right) is joined by fellow NMSHSA farmworker youth interns Jose Velasquez Castellano and Gizela Gaspar. CLC Coordinator Reid Maki is also in the photo.

Arriving at the fields around 7:30 am, I first saw endless rows of strawberry fields. I felt enthusiastic. My task: collect as many bright red strawberries as I could and place them in my pink Halloween bucket. After filling my bucket, I would give the strawberries to one of my parents. Around 12, I felt the heat. It was around 90 degrees. The humidity made it feel worse. I felt like I was in 100-degree weather; I did not like that at all and wanted to go home. I was already tired and asked if we could leave. My mom said no – I had to stay till they finished and so I kept working.

I do not recall what happened the rest of the time I was there, but I remember what happened afterward. I went home and sat on the stairs of the house with a red face, a headache, and clothes covered in dirt, and reflected on the decision I had made to join my parents in the strawberry fields. I went inside. I was so tired that I ignored dinner and skipped a shower, and went straight to bed just to wake up the next day, to repeat another day of long, hard work. My parents had me help them one more day, and convinced that my lesson was learned, they let stay home where, in the next few years, I could help take care of younger siblings when my parents could not find childcare.

Although my work in the strawberry fields was short-lived, I have much more experience harvesting blueberries. I started working on blueberry farms when I was 12 years old and worked every summer until I was 16. The blueberry season starts in the summer after school ends in Florida.

My family and I would leave Florida near the end of June and start the 17-hour drive to Michigan. Unlike the strawberry season, I liked picking blueberries because I did not have to bend down low to the ground all day; blueberry plants grow higher.  My job was to fill up my six buckets. Once they were all filled, I would carry all the buckets to place them into plastic containers and have them weighed. On average, six buckets would be 42-45 pounds, and depending on who we were working for, the average pay was 0.45 to 0.55 cents a pound. I had to pick as many pounds as I could. On good days, I would be able to pick 200 pounds or more; on many other days, I would pick less.

The clothing I wore was also the same: long sleeves, jeans, closed toes shoes, and a hat, to protect myself from the sun. The weather in Michigan is not as humid as it is in Florida, usually, it was in the mid-80s to low 90-degrees however it was still hot being there all day. We would go in each morning at 8:30 or later depending on how wet the blueberry plants were and leave the fields around 8 or 9 at night. 

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Press Release: Child Labor Coalition Welcomes the Reintroduction of the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety 2022 (CARE Act)

For immediate release: March 31, 2022
Contact: Reid Maki, (202) 207-2820reidm@nclnet.org

Washington, D.C.—The Child Labor Coalition (CLC), representing 38 groups engaged in the fight against domestic and global child labor, applauds Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) for introducing the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety (CARE). The legislation, introduced on Cesar Chavez Day, would close long-standing loopholes that permit children in agriculture to work for wages when they are only age 12. The bill would also ban jobs on farms labeled “hazardous” by the U.S. Department of Labor if workers are under the age of 18. The children of farm owners, working on their parents’ farms, would not be impacted by the CARE Act.

 

“Today, I am re-introducing the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety (CARE Act) with my friend and co-lead Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva to protect the rights, safety, and future of [children who work on farms],” said Congresswoman Roybal-Allard, Thursday. 

 

“I’m proud to co-lead this important legislation with Rep. Roybal-Allard to protect the children of farmworkers. Farmworkers remain some of the most exploited, underpaid, and unprotected laborers in our nation. They and their children deserve legal protections, better working conditions, and higher workplace standards to protect their health and safety. It’s past time we updated our antiquated labor laws to give children working in agriculture the same protections and rights provided to all kids in the workforce,” said Rep. Grijalva. 

 

“Children working for wages on farms are exposed to many hazards—farm machinery, heat stroke, and pesticides among them—and they perform back-breaking labor that no child should have to experience,” said CLC co-chair Sally Greenberg, the executive director of the National Consumers League, a consumer advocacy organization that has worked to eliminate abusive child labor since its founding in 1899.… Read the rest

Not So Sweet—Child Labor in Banana Production

By Ellie Murphy

CLC intern Ellie Murphy

Americans eat a lot of bananas. The U.S. is world’s biggest importer of bananas, eating between 28 and 30 bananas per person per year. Worldwide, bananas are the most popular fruit with 100 billion consumed annually. The fruit is nutritious and cheap. Prices generally fluctuate between 30 cents and $1.00 per banana. It’s a great deal for the consumer, but someone is paying a heavy price to produce bananas: exploited farmworkers, including many children.

The work is hard, often dangerous, and not fit for children—who just want to help their impoverished families. Stagnating banana prices have put the squeeze on farmers, leading some planters to hire the cheapest workers—children.

Countries that use child labor to produce bananas include Ecuador, Belize, Brazil, Nicaragua, and the Philippines, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor.

Poverty is the main driver of child labor, but children in the developing world face barriers to accessing education that can also push them toward the work world. Barriers include paying for school fees, uniforms and books. In some countries, there aren’t enough schools, classrooms or teachers. Transportation problems also impact children’s ability to attend school.

Child labor in the banana sector poses significant challenges to children’s’ health and overall well-being. Child workers employed at these plantations are often forced to handle sharp tools like machetes, carry heavy loads, and face exposure to agrochemicals like pesticides and fungicides without protective clothing or gear. Dizziness, nausea, and negative long-term health conditions can result for child workers, and because child workers often live on banana plantations, escaping these health hazards is nearly impossible.

Let’s take a closer look at Ecuador, the world’s top exporter of bananas.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in April 2002 found widespread labor and human rights abuses on Ecuadorian banana plantations. Children as young as eight were found performing hazardous work. “The use of harmful child labor is widespread in Ecuador’s banana sector,” concluded HRW. Report authors interviewed 45 child banana workers and found that 41 began working between eight and 13 with most starting at age 10 or 11. “Their average workday lasted twelve hours, and fewer than 40 percent of the children were still in school by the time they turned fourteen,” noted HRW. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) almost half of indigenous children in rural areas do not attend school, “which can make them more vulnerable to child labor.

“In the course of their work, [child banana workers] were exposed to toxic pesticides, used sharp knives and machetes, hauled heavy loads of bananas, drank unsanitary water, and some were sexually harassed,” noted HRW.

Harvesting bananas is hard work and is often accompanied by exposure to dangerous chemicals.

Roughly 90 percent of the children HRW interviewed reported that they “continued working while toxic fungicides were sprayed from airplanes flying overhead. In an attempt to avoid harmful chemicals, children interviewed about their experience stated that they used various methods to avoid toxic chemicals: “hiding under banana leaves, bowing their heads, covering their faces with their shirts, covering their noses and mouths with their hands, and placing banana cartons on their heads.”

About one in 20 Ecuadorian children in the 5-14 age group work—and four in five of these child workers toil on farms, according to data from USDOL released in its 2019 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor (2019) report.

Clearly, child labor laws in Ecuador are not being adequately enforced. Alarmingly, according to the USDOL, funding for Ecuador’s labor inspectorate fell dramatically from $1.5 million in 2017 to $265,398 in 2018. During that time the number of inspectors increased from 150 to 249. There is no explanation provided for these conflicting numbers but USDOL did note there were fiscal pressures on the Ecuadorian government.

The 2002 HRW report cited many causes of child labor, including discrimination against unionized adult workers who earn higher wages. As a result, many workers who unionize are fired and replaced with children who earn around $3.50 per day, 60% of the minimum wage for banana farmers. “Ecuadorian law fails to protect effectively the right to freedom of association, and employers take advantage of the weak law and even weaker enforcement to impede worker organizing,” noted HRW.

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COVID-19: How Do We Deal with the “Ticking Time Bomb” in Agriculture?

It’s been referred to as a “ticking time bomb” – the Corona virus and its potential impact on farmworkers– the incredibly hard-working men, women, and children who our fruits and vegetables and provide other vital agricultural work. Farmworkers perform dirty back-breaking work and are notoriously underpaid for it and at great risk from COVID-19.

Farmworker advocacy groups that NCL works with or supports like Farmworker Justice, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the United Farmworkers of America (UFW), the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and a national cadre of legal aid attorneys have spent weeks strategizing about ways to protect the community which they know is especially vulnerable to the virus.

Advocates have reached out to administration officials and Congress for desperately needed resources to support impoverished farmworker with little to show for it. Despite their essential contributions to the economy, farmworkers have been cut out of the emergency relief packages.  The Trump administration has even revealed plans to lower pay for agricultural guest workers who sacrifice home and family to come to the U.S. to perform arduous farm labor. Advocates fear that decreasing guest worker wages would drive down low wages for farmworkers already living and working in the U.S.

“Sofia,” a 17-year-old tobacco worker, in a tobacco field in North Carolina. She started working at 13. She tries to protect herself from nicotine poisoning by wearing plastic trash bags and a mask. COVID presents new and scary risks. © 2015 Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch

Farmworkers are poor, with extremely limited access to healthcare. Their poverty often means they work through their illnesses. The workers often toil closely to one another as they harvest fruits and vegetables; they ride to the fields in crowded buses and cars; they have limited access to sanitary facilities, including hand-washing. They often live in overcrowded, dilapidated housing.

The majority of farmworkers are immigrants from Mexico or are the children of Mexican immigrants. The community is socially isolated from main stream America. Poverty forced many farmworkers to leave school at an early age. It also causes them to bring their children to work with them in the fields—-child labor supplements their meager incomes. Language and cultural barriers further their isolation. NCL, through the Child Labor Coalition which it founded and co-chairs, has committed to the fight to fix the broken child labor laws that allow children in agriculture to work at early ages—often 12—and to perform hazardous work at age 16.

When the virus began to move into America’s rural areas, many socially- and culturally-isolated farmworkers hadn’t heard about the virus.  Some were confused that the grocery store shelves were empty; that the bottled water they usually buy suddenly cost much more.

In some cases, farmworkers reported that the farmers they work for have not told them about the virus or the need to take special precautions while working. Farmworkers face an alarming dearth of protective equipment. Many farmworkers groups, including the UFW and Justice for Migrant Women are urgently racing to provide masks and other protective gear.

A farmworker with COVID-19 is unlikely know he or she has it and is very likely to keep working and infect his or her family and coworkers. Recently, a growers group tested 71 tree fruit workers in Wenatchee, Washington, according to a report in the Capital Press newspaper. Although none of the workers were showing symptoms of COVID-19, 36 workers—more than half—tested positive!

The conditions faced by farm workers are a “superconductor for the virus,” noted advocate Greg Asbed of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in a New York Times opinion piece, “What Happens if America’s 2.5 Million Farmworkers Get Sick?” The answer, he concluded, is that “the U.S. food supply is in danger.”

The current circumstances reminded Asbed of a previous crisis: “A century ago in ‘The Jungle,’ Upton Sinclair wrote about how the teeming tenements and meatpacking houses where workers lived and labored were perfect breeding grounds for tuberculosis as it swept the country.”

“Now there is a new pathogenic threat and the workers who feed us are once again in grave danger,” said Asbed, adding that the “The two most promising measures for protecting ourselves from the virus and preventing its spread — social distancing and self-isolation — are effectively impossible in farmworker communities” because farmworkers live and work so closely together.

The looming food crisis is not just an American phenomenon, reported the New York Times, April 22nd in an article ‘Instead of Coronavirus, the Hunger Will Kill Us.’ A Global Food Crisis Looms. “The world has never faced a hunger emergency like this, experts say. It could double the number of people facing acute hunger to 265 million by the end of this year,” noted reporter Abdi Latif Dahir.

“The coronavirus pandemic has brought hunger to millions of people around the world. National lockdowns and social distancing measures are drying up work and incomes, and are likely to disrupt agricultural production and supply routes — leaving millions to worry how they will get enough to eat,” added Dahir.

 “Full Fields, Empty Fridges” in the Washington Post April 23, warned that in the U.S. the farm –to-grocery distribution system is breaking down under the strain of the virus and that farmers are plowing in fields of crops. The Trump administration has announced a $19 billion plan to buy agricultural products and get them to food banks, which are experiencing shortages and, in some cases,  lines of cars waiting for help that are over a mile and a half long. 

In the U.S., the federal government’s responses have been focused on helping farmers—which is fine, we all want farmers to be helped—but we cannot forget or neglect the needs of desperately poor farmworkers.

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