Tag Archive for: Agriculture


Human Rights Watch Report Exposes “Fields of Peril”

Fields of Peril

Child Labor in US Agriculture

May 5, 2010

In this 99-page report Human Rights Watch found that child farmworkers risked their safety, health, and education on commercial farms across the United States. For the report, Human Rights Watch interviewed 59 children under age 18 who had worked as farmworkers in 14 states in various regions of the United States.



New York Times Highlights Plight of Farmworker Children

Efforts to protect farmworker children received a boost in June, 2010 when the NY Times front page featured an article on child labor in U.S. agriculture:


An accompanying slide show can be found here:



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.


Group works to reform labor laws for migrant children

By Naxiely Lopez
Article published on November 17, 2010
[From The Monitor, a South Texas newspaper. Got to the newspaper article by clicking here.]

SAN JUAN — It’s been almost half a century since migrant activist César Chávez began fighting for farmworkers’ rights.

And today, the battle is not over, especially when it comes to child labor laws, said Norma Flores Lopez, director of the national Children in the Fields campaign.

Launched in 1997 and funded by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), the Children in the Fields campaign seeks to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act — a federal law enacted in 1938 that allows children as young as 10 years old to work 30 hours a week or more in the fields, Lopez said.

The 25-year-old San Juan native now heads the initiative in Washington, D.C. She began working in the Iowa fields in the third grade.

“I never really put much thought to it when I was a kid,” Lopez said about working as a child. “To me it was a way of life and I thought every kid went through this. It never occurred to me that my life was very different from other kids. I just knew that I would come late (to school), we were living in poverty and I needed to help my parents.”

An estimated 400,000 children are currently employed in agriculture in the United States, according to the association, which advocates for migrants’ health and safety rights.

“Child labor law does not protect migrant seasonal workers, but it protects all other kids in all other industries,” said Noemi Ochoa, the AFOP Texas state coordinator.

Ochoa works closely with a youth council from the University of Texas-Pan American to raise awareness of what she calls an unfair law that puts children at risk.

“The law says that they must work under environmentally safe conditions,” she said. “Well, we all know that farm work is not environmentally safe.”

Children are exposed to harsh environmental elements, harmful pesticides and work with dangerous machinery and tools that children in other industries are not allowed to use, Ochoa said.

“A 16-year-old can drive a forklift (on a farm), whereas if you go to Home Depot or Lowes or Walmart they will not, by law, allow a 16-year-old to handle it. You’ve got to be 18 years old,” she said. “Agriculture is deemed one of the most dangerous industries by the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and the U.S. Department of Labor, and yet the law says it’s OK for children to be out there.”

The state coordinator understands that many children work because their families depend on their income, but it still doesn’t make it right, she said.

“It’s not right for these kids to be exposed to the elements at such a young age, especially to the chemicals because research has shown that it is hurting the kids — especially at the age of 11, 12, 13, and 14 — when kids are developing,” she said.

Children account for about 20 percent of all farm fatalities, according to a 2006 report released by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. That same year, more than 10,000 children were injured in farms.

In August, 8-year-old Margarito Cantu Jr., of Roma, was killed in Kidder County, N.D., after he was caught in a potato truck’s conveyor, Ochoa said. The Jamestown Sun newspaper reported the second-grader was entangled while his parents worked on the truck.

“This just shows the hazards children are exposed to,” Ochoa said.

AFOP helped the family with funds to bury the boy, but his family couldn’t afford to bury him in the Rio Grande Valley, so he was laid to rest in North Dakota, she said.


Claudia Garcia, an employee at La Union Del Pueblo Entero in Mission, traveled to Iowa this past summer to work in the corn fields with her dad and three younger brothers, ages 14, 16 and 18. The 26-year-old said her father was the only one who used to migrate, but after struggling to make ends meet, her family decided to travel and work together this past year.

“We just decided it would be something that would help my family’s economy because we were going through a really rough time — we still are,” she said. “My brothers started getting older and started asking for more things, and my dad decided maybe they should know how it is out there for him.”

Working in the fields was a harsh wake-up call for her and her three younger brothers, who were constantly getting in trouble in school, Garcia said. She remembers conditions were often very harsh. There was a day when the heat broke records in Williamsburg, Iowa and 21 people fainted in the fields, including her 14-year-old brother.

“They dehydrated,” she said. “It was so hot and you had to wear all of these clothes, but you would rather wear them because if you didn’t the leaves from the corn would cut you.”

In the morning, the workers would have to use plastic bags or ponchos to cover themselves because the dew would seep into their clothes and they’d end up drenched, she said.

“You wore whatever you had so that you could stay dry because when the sun dries the clothes later on in the day, the pollen and all of the chemicals start burning and itching a lot,” she said.

Workers would also wear sunglasses, a cap and a bandana around their mouths because the pollen and the chemicals in the pesticides, combined with the heat, would cause facial rashes, she added.

It is these same environmental hazards and mishaps that made Lopez, the campaign director, see child labor in a different perspective.

“I started thinking back about all of the times I saw kids getting hurt and staying behind in school, and then even finding out about some folks who started developing cancer,” she said. “Those were all the flags for me and why I believe so much in what I’m doing.”

But Garcia says the work was beneficial to her family.

“It helped my family a lot in so many ways,” she said about the work. “It just brought us closer as a family. It helped our economy and my brothers started to think about college after that.”

The Garcias, however, are a special case. They didn’t miss out on months of school each year, like many migrant children do. While it did motivate Garcia’s brothers to seek higher education, the work often leads to high dropout rates, Lopez said

U.S. Department of Education suggest half the youth who regularly perform farm work never graduate from high school, but AFOP estimates the non-completion rate is at least 65 percent.

“These are kids that are slipping through the cracks and continuing the cycle of poverty because they can’t get an education,” Lopez said.


Part of the initiative is to pass the CARE bill, short for Children’s Act for Responsible Employment, which would amend the federal law by bringing the age and work hour standards for children working in agriculture up to the standards set for all other forms of child labor. It would also increase the fines for child labor violations, which would serve as a deterrent for employers who constantly violate the laws, Ochoa said.

The bill would also require government agencies to keep a more accurate record of youth violations, illnesses and injuries, because the lack of data undermines the scope of the problem, she added.

“The U.S. advocates for Americans not to buy clothes that are made in India and Mexico because they’re made in sweatshops,” Ochoa said. “But who’s feeding you? You’re saying you can’t buy clothes from sweatshops and yet you’re eating vegetables and fruits every day that are harvested by children
12 years old and younger.”

Both Lopez and Ochoa say they’re only working for social justice that is long overdue for the people who can’t even afford to eat the crops they harvest.

“Have there been gains?” Ochoa asks. “Yes, there have been gains. Is there still a lot of work to be done?

Naxiely Lopez covers PSJA and general assignments for The Monitor. She can be reached at (956) 683-4434.


The CLC Applauds the Introduction of the CARE Act Press Release

Sept. 16, 2009

Washington, D.C.—The Child Labor Coalition (CLC) applauds the introduction of the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE), H.R. 3564, introduced September 15th by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA). The legislation would close loopholes that permit the children of migrant and seasonal farmworkers to work for wages when they are only 12- and 13-years-old.

“Child farmworkers are exposed to many dangers—farm machinery, heat stroke, and pesticides among them—and perform back-breaking labor that is not fit for children,” 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. “It’s time to level the playing field by closing these archaic loopholes and offering these children the same protections that all other American kids enjoy. We applaud Rep. Roybal-Allard’s leadership in introducing CARE.”

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Mexican farms employ kids illegally, U.N. says

By Chris Hawley, USA TODAY

MEXICO CITY — Adriana Salgado, 10, spends her days in a field in northwestern Mexico, picking spinach, cabbage and other vegetables that fill American salad bowls.

Salgado attends school for one hour a day, and she doesn’t know how to read. Her 15-year-old sister, who works with her, can’t read either. Salgado had an 8-year-old brother, too, until he was crushed by a tractor while working in a tomato field last year in a case that garnered nationwide attention.

About 300,000 youngsters such as Salgado work illegally in Mexico’s fields, the United Nations Children’s Fund says. In some cases, child farm labor is used to produce goods that are exported to the USA. The practice persists despite harsh criticism from international groups, rules imposed by U.S. distributors and increasingly strident warnings from the Mexican government.

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