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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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Reflections on the “5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour” in Durban, South Africa, May 15-20, 2022

The recently-concluded, week-long “5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour” in Durban, South Africa was convened against the backdrop of the announcement last July of an alarming rise in child labor numbers after two decades of steady and significant declines in global child labor totals.

The global conference, which typically comes about every four years, brought together an estimated 1,000 delegates from foreign governments and small number of representatives of NGOs. It also brought together for the first time at one of the quadrennial child labor conferences, dozens of participant youth advocates as well as a number of child labor victims and survivors.

The conference had the difficult mission of righting the ship and trying to reverse the rising child labor numbers, which seem destined to rise further as the COVID pandemic’s impact will continue to be felt for years. Sadly, the pandemic threw 1.6 million children out of school, often for prolonged periods and some of those children entered work and may never return to school.

We would first like to thank the South Africa government for the herculean task of organizing a global conference during a still raging pandemic, all against a backdrop of devastating floods in April that savaged the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Easter Cape and killed nearly 500 people, destroyed 4,000 homes and displaced 40,000 people.

As the conference opened, Guy Ryder, the Director General of the International Labour Organization, which helped advise the government of South Africa on the organization of the conference, suggested that the rise in 8 million child laborers from 152 million to 160 million likely represented complacency and a loss of focus by global governments on the child labor problem and must be rectified.… Read the rest

Opinion: Child labor is on the rise; here’s how to prevent it

By Kunera Moore

Did you know that some of your favorite foods may be produced with child labor? The U.S. Labor Department, for example, named coffee as a product associated with child labor risk in 17 countries. This risk also remains widespread in cocoa, the main ingredient of chocolate: more than 60% of it is grown in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, where child labor remains widespread.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 635 million students are affected by full or partial school closures, UNICEF announced last week. And shuttered schools combined with frozen economies means more children are driven into the workforce, according to a recent report by UNESCO, UNICEF, and the World Bank.

A staggering estimate of 160 million children worldwide are involved in child labor, according to a 2021 International Labour Organization report based on data collected before pandemic-induced school closures. This marks an 8.4 million increase since 2016.

Child cocoa workers in West Africa. Photo by Robin Romano.

Yet over the past 20 years, remarkable strides have been made to decrease the number of children involved in child labor worldwide. The Sustainable Development Goal of eradicating all forms of child labor by 2025 gained new momentum for this pressing challenge in 2021, the international year for the elimination of child labor.

We can’t afford to lose this momentum.

“Ensuring all children return to school and stay in school requires urgent investments in education, social security, and poverty reduction.”

 

Seventy percent of children in child labor are working in agriculture — work that can be dangerous and exhausting with long hours under the hot sun. The problem is particularly acute in the African continent. In Uganda, for instance, 22% of children ages 5 to 14 are involved in child labor and do not attend school. But the situation is also serious in a country such as Mexico, where 4% of children work and from that number, 30% work in agriculture.

Child labor must stop. But while banning child labor is commonly perceived as the silver bullet, it’s not enough.

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Child Labor’s Prevalence Perception Problem–What the Consumer Surveys Reveal

The CLC’s Reid Maki

There are a lot of obstacles to ending child labor that the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) and its nearly 40 members confront on a daily basis. Poverty, governmental indifference, educational access issues, and a lack of awareness of the negative, long-term impact of child labor on children are all big factors, but another is lack of knowledge of the scope or prevalence of the problem.

The average American consumer doesn’t understand that child labor is a pervasive problem affecting an estimated 152 million children in the world – and that’s an estimate developed before the pandemic started. We think the number has grown significantly since COVID-19 began, throwing hundreds of millions of families into deeper poverty.

We became aware of the gap between the public’s perception of the problem and the reality of situation seven years ago when the group Child Fund International commissioned a survey of over 1,000 consumers. Only one percent knew that roughly 150 million children were trapped in child labor globally. That number translates to one in 10 children. It’s staggering to think about. Even more disturbing: 73 percent of survey respondents – essentially three out of four—incorrectly guessed that the global total was less the one million. They were off by a factor of 150!

It’s hard to galvanize public and political opinion to confront a pressing social problem when few people realize the massive scope of the problem and instead misperceive it as a tiny, moribund problem. If we want corporations that benefit from child labor to take serious action, we need a better understanding of the problem’s prevalence. Governments are not likely to act or expend financial resources on programs to fix a problem perceived as affecting very few children.

We’ve been wondering if the internet and Twitter and our persistent efforts to educate the public have helped close the perception gap in the several years since Child Fund’s polling. Surveys are expensive and our budget didn’t allow us to conduct a phone-based survey like the 2013 poll.  We decided to use a Survey Monkey internet poll to see where the public’s perception levels were at.

We gave respondents the opportunity to guess how many children were impacted by child labor and we offered them six answer options:

  • 1 in 10
  • 1 in 100
  • 1 in 500
  • 1 in 1,000
  • 1 in 5,000
  • 1 in 50,000

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