In the early 1900′s, Mary Harris Jones, also known as Mother Jones, an Irish-American schoolteacher and dressmaker, was a prominent labor and community organizer who helped coordinate major strikes and co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World.
In 1903, Mother Jones organized a Children’s March from Philadelphia to the home of then president Theodore Roosevelt in New York to protest the mines and silk mills who were exploiting children in the workforce.
The children — many who had missing fingers and other disabilities — carried banners that read: “We want to go to School and not the mines!”
Mother Jones and her “Children’s Crusade” march inspired many early child labor laws in the early 1900′s.
If she were alive today, Mother Jones, who battled corporate exploitation of children over 100 years ago, would be stunned at how backward labor laws are pertaining to child and agriculture in the 21st century.
A United States labor law, which dates back to 1938, and is still in full effect today, allows children 12 years old, and even younger, to legally work in agriculture.
“The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 made two separate sets of rules,” said Flores Lopez, director of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP’s) Children in the Fields Campaign.
“There is a set of rules that covers children working in every other industry and then there is a separate set of rules for kids working in agriculture.”
As for the scope of the problem, Flores Lopez said there are many more children working in America at far younger ages than most of us might imagine.
“It is very difficult to be able to pin exactly how many children are out there because there is not a whole lot of data that is being collected by the government on this,” Flores Lopez said.
“But from our best estimates that we have been able to get we know that there is anywhere from 400,000 children to up to as many as 500,000 kids.”
Last summer, an NBC News Bay Area’s Investigative Unit spent weeks penetrating the close-knit and tightly guarded community of migrant workers and found dozens of children working the fields in California — some who started work at 11-, 10- and even 8-years of age.
“While an 8-year-old could not work in an office or fast-food restaurant, a 1938 law allows them to legally work in agriculture.”
NBC News claims these children are working a full day in the fields picking, trimming and cultivating fresh fruits and vegetables. They often work 9 to 10 hours a day in 100-degree-plus heat.
“Children can work at any age on a small farm with their parents’ permission. It’s absolutely legal for a small farmer to hire a 6-year-old to pick blueberries,” said Zama Coursen-Neff of Human Rights Watch.
Coursen-Neff authored a 2010 report that found child labor prevalent in fields across the United States.
Coursen-Neff’s research shows that low wages for migrant workers throughout the industry means these families need more workers in the field to make ends meet. It becomes an economic necessity that continues for generations.
One 15-year-old worker’s mother put it plainly: “With just my husband’s salary it’s not enough. The two of them need to work in order to have anything and to keep up,” she said through an Spanish interpreter.
Some parents attempt to prevent their kids from working the fields, even though their families badly need the money.
“She (mom) doesn’t want to see me work there (in the fields),” said a girl we’ll call Carmen. That’s why Carmen’s mother forces her to stay in school away from the fields.
“She says because it’s a lot of work,” Carmen explained. “She doesn’t want me to go through what she goes through (in the fields). She says it’s really painful, hard work. Every night I massage her back so that she can feel better in the morning.”
Opposition From Growers
NBC News claims this year, the United States Department of Labor tried to change the law and further restrict and even prohibit some children from working in fields.
But they met opposition from growers.
“What they were proposing was a little too strong a little too restrictive,” said second-generation grower Pete Aeillo of Gilroy, a critic of the proposed reform.
“I think that the current (agriculture labor) regulations as they are I think are good I think they are sound. I think it’s OK for kids that young to be working (in the fields.) (It depends) now on how many hours that they work.”
After other critics lodged similar complaints in Washington, the Labor Department withdrew the proposed new rules in April.
“Critics also said the proposed rules as drawn up by the Labor Department would have hurt family farms although department officials dispute that.”
January 4th, 2013