After all these years, a harvest of shame is still borne on the backs of children

"I've never seen anyone working on any farm anywhere who is under the age of 18." Incredible as it may appear, that was Brian Little, director of government relations of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFB) addressing the question of under-age children working in the fields and orchards of America.

Little's recent declaration to an Associated Press reporter demonstrates the Farm Bureau's often ruthless anti-labor stance and its long-standing inhumaneness in dealing with economic and social justice issues, but it also is indicative of a well-fed society's seeming indifference to its "fields of infamy."

While not as blatant, such myopia can also be found in U.S. Department of Labor. Labor Department officials around the country are frequently heard to say that underage children working in the fields are nearly impossible to find.

"I don't believe we have ever found it," Jorge Rivero, Labor Department district director in Miami told Associated Press reporter Martha Mendoza. "If it exists, we don't know about it." Yet, less than an hour away, near Homestead, Fla., the AP found eight underage children harvesting beans on several farms on a single day in November.

Recently the AP, in a perceptive and riveting five-part series, "Children For Hire," examined child labor in these United States. Its findings again strangely echoed a number of now-famous newspaper series, books and television exposés and documentaries going back to novelist John Steinbeck's San Francisco newspaper reports on worker conditions in California's Salinas Valley in the 1930s, Carey McWilliams' episodic book Factories in the Field and Edward R. Murrow's 1960 Thanksgiving television classic documentary "Harvest of Shame."

Curiously, the complete AP series appeared in only a few newspapers throughout the U.S. It was ignored by such publications as the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The AP, in an effort to learn just how many under-age children are currently in the nation's workplaces, asked Rutgers University labor consultant Douglas Kruse to analyze monthly census surveys and other workplace and population data collected by the federal government.

The study, which U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman called more comprehensive than anything her department had produced, found that 290,200 children were employed unlawfully in 1996; that among them 59,000 were under the age of 14; that 123,000 of those children worked in the nation's fields, orchards and sheds from California to the Midwest to Delaware; of that number 61,000 of the 14-17 year olds lived apart from their parents. In addition it is estimated that uncounted thousands more are under age 14.

In the five months that Mendoza and some 27 other AP reporters and a dozen photographers talked and followed some of these children they alone found 165 children working illegally in 16 states from the "chili fields of New Mexico to the sweatshops of New York City."

Recent newspaper and television "exposés" have told of inhumane child labor in Southeast Asia and Latin America sweatshops and television personalities tearfully plead their mea culpas publicly after learning that their endorsed products were being manufactured in these very same sweatshops.

Yet, meanwhile, the American consumer blithely goes about buying their everyday food menu from companies such as Campbell Soup Co., Chi-Chi's Mexican restaurants, Costco, ConAgra, H.J. Heinz and Pillsbury. All these companies and others sold food that the AP found had been the work products of some 50 under-age children that the AP followed in the fields.

Reacting to the Associated Press stories several companies have subsequently changed or updated their policies. H.J. Heinz, Campbell Soup Co. and Newman's Own all report that they are changing their policies as a result of the reporting.

At Heinz, spokeswoman Debbie Magnus said the company had previously required vendors to sign a form guaranteeing compliance with child labor laws, but that it is now clear that was not sufficient, and that Heinz is now planning to work directly with processors and growers "to truly guarantee compliance."

At Campbell Soup, spokesman Kevin Lowery told Mendoza that the company is sending letters to all of its suppliers, whether identified in the series or not, to remind them that violating federal and state child labor laws could cost them their contracts. "We're telling thousands upon thousands of suppliers, 'If you are not in adherence, you will be what we call a former supplier.'"

Newman's Own said that chili growers, processors, labor contractor agencies and suppliers will all be required to sign contracts promising to comply with state and federal child labor laws. The company will also require spot checks of the fields during harvest season, it said. "If they are using children to pick the produce, we're not going to buy it," said Tom Indoe, chief operating officer of Newman's Own.

Meanwhile, other companies named in the series saw no need to change their policies. At Pillsbury, for example, spokesman Terry Thompson said it checked with farmers on whose property the AP saw, and photographed, children working and learned that none of them had been cited by the federal government for child labor violations in the last two years. Therefore, he said, "we consider this case closed."

While the New York sweatshops grab national headlines and the evening TV news, in Washington state's Brewster Heights Packing Plant Co. more than 100 cherry and apple plant workers suffered carbon monoxide poisoning in July, 1997. Hospital records later showed that seven of the victims were under age 16-year old Mexican Americans.

Company President Ed Pariseau announced five days later that the two girls and five boys had been "fired," that they "should reapply when you are of legal age," that the law barring them from working was "a shame," and that "philosophically, we think it is the best thing we could do in the world to hire more teenagers."

Later, when the Associated Press after learning the actual ages of the children involved --- six 15-year olds and one 14-year old --- by obtaining hospital records filed with the state labor department and released to AP through a State Freedom of Information Act request, it also learned that local U.S. Department of Labor office had no knowledge of the event

For children who work in our "fields of infamy" there is the added deadly hazard of chemical poisons. While studies of Washington state apple workers, for example, show 16 times the chemical poison breakdown products in their urine than their non-agricultural worker neighbors, experts point out that there is far greater risk to children from such long-term, low level chemical poison exposure.

"Compared to late-in-life exposures to pesticides early in life can lead to a greater risk of chronic effects that are expressed only after long latency periods have elapsed," according to a 1993 National Academy of Science committee report.

Dr. Marion Moses, the long-time, tireless advocate for improved farm worker safety and health and director of the Pesticide Education Center in San Francisco has got it right when she charges "everybody stands there with a straight face and talks about protecting children, and yet they don't do anything to protect child workers. I don't think we should be dousing children very early in life with toxic chemicals."

Typical of what Dr. Moses is talking about is the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 which requires the Environmental Protection Agency to consider children who are the most vulnerable to adverse health effects, when it sets limits on chemical poisons in food. However, the surprisingly tough legislation, even to the environmental lobby, specifically forbids EPA from considering occupational exposure to chemical poisons and goes out of its way to exclude children.

One finding contained within the AP investigation of "Children For Hire" that squarely puts the question of child labor, particularly in the fields, into sharp focus is that fact that employers saved $155 million in wages in 1996 by hiring underage children instead of legal workers.

"If adults were paid a living wage, we wouldn't have child labor," Ann Millard, a Michigan State University anthropologist who studies migrant labor conditions rightfully states. One might also add that if family farmers, particularly those under contract to large food processors, were paid a fair price for what they produce, agriculture would not have the historical problems that it has had when it comes to paying its field labor.

Indeed, a recent General Accounting Office report shows that there is "no national agricultural labor shortage at this time," despite efforts by a number of farm industry associations, including the AFB, to expand the number of temporary work visas for the so-called guest workers by arguing that some regions face labor shortages, which are likely to increase as immigration officials step up efforts to bar and return illegal aliens.

Under the current farm guest-worker program, known as H-2A, farm employers brought in 15,000 foreign workers in 1996, a small portion of the estimated labor force of 2 million farm workers, about 40 percent of whom were illegal aliens. Guest workers typically work for two or three months on jobs ranging from sheep herding to apple picking.

Farm labor advocates reject such requests pointing out that increasing the number of such guest workers will undercut the wages of field laborers nationwide and weaken efforts to unionize them.

As Dolores Huerta, secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers, charges, "there's definitely a surplus of farm workers." In a telephone interview with the New York Times' Stephen Greenhouse she added, "that explains why there has been a drop in farm-worker wages over the last 10 to 15 years. They have dropped wages substantially because they always know there's a large pool of workers they can get."

As evidence that there is no shortage of farm labor, the GAO said that of the nation's 20 largest agricultural counties it surveyed in the summer of 1997, 11 had unemployment rates more than twice the national average of five percent, and 15 had jobless rates two percentage points higher than the national rate.

GAO also noted that after accounting for inflation, the average hourly wage of farm workers fell by 17 percent from 1989 to 1995. That, the Congress' investigative agency said, pointed to a labor surplus, rather than a shortage.

Let's make no mistake about what we are talking about when we discuss children working in the "fields of infamy." We are not talking about the children of most farm families, who are just as concerned about their children's health and welfare, as the general public professes and who act accordingly.

We are talking about those corporate agribusinesses and frequently the business and labor contractors in their employ who see children not as human beings but as simply, docile, cost-cutting production inputs extremely beneficial to their own bottom lines.

Associated Press' "Children for Hire" conclusively found that farmers and factory owners who illegally hire underage children generally get away with it and that the U.S. Department of Labor, charged with enforcing the nation's child labor laws:

(ogonek) Fails to find the most vulnerable victims of child labor.

(ogonek) Maintains a secret fine schedule that undercuts the $10,000-per-violation child-labor penalty imposed by Congress.

(ogonek) Fails to bring criminal cases against repeat offenders.

(ogonek) Does not seize goods that are the product of illegal child labor, as provided by law.

It is time, therefore, that all those people in the agricultural community who believe in the sanctity of the human being, who believe that children are our future, who say that to abuse, injure and "murder" children, is as heinous a crime as one can imagine, it is time that those people organize and take action.

It is time that they force the U.S. Department of Labor, their elected representatives, their local, state and federal governments and those traditional anti-labor farm organizations like the AFB and the corporate purveyors of misery in our "fields of infamy" to become not only accountable, but morally, economically and socially responsible when it comes to the rights and the health and welfare of our children.

A.V. Krebs is the author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness (Essential Books: 1992)

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