Harvest of Shame: Report Accuses
Child Labor Abuses in Guatemala
Amy Goodman interviews
Charles Kernaghan, Executive Director
of the National Labor Committee
Democracy Now, March 13, 2007
President Bush traveled to Guatemala on
Monday and said free trade can spread opportunity, provide jobs,
and help lift people out of poverty. But according to a new report,
there is a food processing plant less than 10 miles from where
Bush spoke where children as young as 13 years old are working
under deplorable conditions. We speak with veteran anti-sweatshop
activist Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee about
the report. [includes rush transcript]
For the past week on his trip through
Latin America President Bush has been praising U.S. efforts to
end poverty in the hemisphere and promoting the benefits of so-called
free trade agreements with Washington.
On Monday, President Bush traveled to Guatemala and said free
trade can spread opportunity, provide jobs, and help lift people
out of poverty.
But there is a darker side about U.S.-Guatemalan
trade relations: less than 10 miles from where Bush spoke there
is a food processing plant where children as young as 13 years
old are working under deplorable conditions.
According to the New York-based National
Labor Committee, the children, working at a factory owned by Legumex,
harvest and process vegetables and fruits exported to the United
The National Labor Committee has just
published a report on the conditions at the Legumex factory. It
is titled "Harvest of Shame."
Charles Kernaghan joins me now. He is
a veteran anti-sweatshop activist and the executive director of
the National Labor Committee.
Charles Kernaghan, director of the National
The vast majority of the exports at the Legumex factory in Guatemala
are sold to Superior Foods, based in Watsonville California. We
invited a representative of Superior Foods to join us on the program
but the company declined.
In an emailed statement, Marco Cruz of
Superior Foods, wrote:
"We are committed to ensuring that
all product purchased, sold or distributed by our company is produced
with ethical labor practices and in strict compliance with local
labor law. At every facility we work with in the U.S. and abroad,
we conduct periodic audits and inspections to validate critical
issues as food safety, food security, product quality and working
conditions. We are surprised and concerned about the labor violations
alleged in the NLC report and will immediately investigate these
serious allegations in that particular facility.
"We outspokenly do not support producers
who cannot clearly demonstrate that they abide by local labor
laws, and we will discontinue working with this processor if abuses
are evident and not entirely and satisfactorily resolved. Meanwhile,
we will exert our influence to see that these allegations are
addressed openly and soon, and that remedial action is taken if
and wherever necessary.
"Our hope would be that fruit and
vegetable production in Guatemala is ultimately sustainable and
that it can and will help create the best possible opportunity
for the workers and growers in that area. We'd much rather be
an agent for constructive change and improvement than simply be
one of a number of buyers who can even more easily simply discontinue
business in this region. As a matter of policy, we continually
pressure all of our suppliers to encourage progressive labor practices
that advance productivity, better pay and better working conditions."
AMY GOODMAN: For the past week, on his
trip through Latin America, President Bush has been praising US
efforts to end poverty in the hemisphere and promoting the benefits
of so-called free trade agreements with Washington.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Millions across
our hemisphere who every day suffer the degradations of poverty
and hunger have a right to be impatient, and I'm going to make
them this pledge. The goal of this great country, the goal of
a country full of generous people, is an Americas where the dignity
of every person is respected, where all find room at the table
and where opportunity reaches into every village and every home.
AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, President Bush traveled to Guatemala and
said free trade can spread opportunity, provide jobs, and help
lift people out of poverty.
But there's a darker side about the US-Guatemalan
trade negotiations. Less than ten miles from where Bush spoke,
there's a food processing plant where children as young as thirteen
years old are working under deplorable conditions. According to
the New York-based National Labor Committee, the children, working
at a factory owned by Legumex, harvest and process vegetables
and fruits exported to the United States. The National Labor Committee
has just published a report on the conditions at the factory;
it's called "Harvest of Shame."
Charles Kernaghan joins us now. He is
a veteran anti-sweatshop activist, executive director of the National
Labor Committee. Welcome, Charlie, to Democracy Now!
CHARLES KERNAGHAN: It's good to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: So what did you find in Guatemala?
CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, like you said,
as President Bush was there speaking about the benefits of the
CAFTA, the Central America Free Trade Agreement, there are children
working in these processing factories. These are agro-industrial
plants. They process fruits and vegetables for export to the US.
This Legumex factory exported more than four million pounds of
frozen broccoli and melons and pineapples to the US last year,
much of it going to US schoolchildren, we think, because it was
coming through a company called Sysco.
Well, inside the factory, they're all
kids. The vast majority were thirteen years of age to seventeen
-- sixteen, seventeen years of age. It looks like a high school,
but it's not a high school. These kids are going in from 7:00
in the morning until 7:00 at night, fourteen hours a day, six
days a week. Sometimes they have to come in earlier, at 6:00 or
6:30 in the morning.
They do an extraordinary amount of work,
these young kids. Thirteen-year-old kids, we watched them cutting
up broccoli. You know, you buy those frozen broccoli florets in
the stores. Every head of broccoli, they grab these heads of broccoli,
and with a knife they make thirty-seven cuts, and then with their
hands they break the broccoli apart into ninety-seven pieces.
So there's ninety-seven operations. They do one broccoli every
sixty-four seconds. So they're making a cut every seven-tenths
of a second. And this is all day long, seven-tenths of a second.
I mean, flying through. They're cutting themselves with their
knives. They're on their feet all day. They say their feet swell
up. Their backs hurt. They're exhausted. They make the same movements
over and over again. Their wrists swell up.
But they told us something that was extraordinary.
They were doing like 692 pounds of fruit and vegetables a day.
These are thirteen-, fourteen-, fifteen-year-old kids. But they
said to us, the worst was the melon. And we said, like, "Why?"
They said, well, you work in the water, because they're constantly
washing the floor. So here you have thirteen-, fourteen-, fifteen-year-old
kids standing in sneakers in an inch of water for twelve hours,
and they say that their feet begin to crack, the skin, and bleeds
-- and they begin to bleed.
And they just kept going on. They said,
you know, the factory is quite cold. This area of Guatemala is
in the highland. It's quite cold. And plus, they're freezing these
vegetables. So their workers are surrounding in an area called
preparation, surrounded by all of these freezers, and it's freezing
cold in there. And they won't let the kids wear sweaters, because
the sweaters may get lint onto the fruit or onto the vegetables.
So you have kids working in cold temperatures in t-shirts, but
all the supervisors are walking around in sweatshirts and jackets.
And they also say to the kids, "It will make you lazy if
you wear the sweater. So if you wear that sweater, we're taking
it away from you, and we're going to throw it away."
So you have kids, you know, working twelve
hours a day in the cold, often standing in an inch of water, their
feet are bleeding, their hands are cut and they're cheated their
wages. And the company actually tells the kids -- this company
was not, you know, too reticent to discuss with the children why
they wanted them. They said, "Look, you have no responsibilities.
You don't have families. You're not a parent. You don't have to
worry about kids or a house. You're just here to work." And
they would constantly scream at them to go faster, go faster.
Most of the workers were earning about half of the legal minimum
wage. They didn't have social security, which is mandatory in
Guatemala. They weren't paid for holidays. I mean, this place
was like -- this place was a bad place, and this was right next
to where George Bush was giving his talk about the benefits of
AMY GOODMAN: Explain who gets the fruit
and the cut vegetables here in the United States. How does the
CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, this was interesting,
because it was very difficult to track. But we were able to track
like, say, frozen broccoli and other goods into the United States
to a company called Superior in California, Watsonville, California.
From Superior it would go to giant companies like Sysco, which
is the largest food processing and distributor company in the
United States. It also went to US Foodservice, which is the second
largest food service company in the United States.
Much of this stuff went to schools, which
means that children in Guatemala were not only harvesting the
broccoli. Children in Guatemala were processing the broccoli,
and that broccoli was coming to the United States, and it was
being eaten by children in the United States in schools. It also
went to the US military, also went to federally funded hospitals.
So, on the one hand, while we talk about
worker rights protections in CAFTA -- which, of course, is zero
-- when we talk about them, that's one thing, but just imagine
the message it delivers to a factory like Legumex, when the US
military buys products -- indirectly, but the US military is buying
products made in that factory. So the real message is: do whatever
you want; we don't care.
AMY GOODMAN: Since you reported that the
vast majority of the exports at the Legumex factory in Guatemala
are sold to Superior Foods, based in Watsonville, California,
we invited a representative of Superior Foods to join us on the
program, but the company declined. They did, however, issue a
written statement: Marco Cruz of Superior Foods said, "We're
surprised and concerned about the labor violations alleged in
the NLC report, and we'll immediately investigate these serious
allegations in that particular facility. We outspokenly do not
support producers who cannot clearly demonstrate that they abide
by local labor laws, and we will discontinue working with this
processor if abuses are evident and not entirely and satisfactorily
resolved." Your response?
CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, the kids told
us that North Americans came into the factory all the time, maybe
even once a month. They didn't talk to the kids. They're there.
They knew what was going on. So they're in and out of the factory
every month. They could see. I mean, some of the kids are so small,
it's like shocking. So it would be impossible not to know.
And also, one other aspect of this factory
is that they have a swing shift for the kids, where they work
a day shift one week from 7:00 in the morning until 5:00 at night
-- this is in what's called the processing department, where they
actually freeze the vegetables and fruit -- the following week,
they swing to an all-night night shift from 5:00 in the afternoon
until 7:00 in the morning, fourteen hours. So you have a fifteen-year-old
girl we interviewed, all night you're standing in this factory,
fourteen hours right through the night, and, I mean, they're sick,
they're collapsing, because you can't adjust your sleeping habits
and your eating habits from week to week. And it's freezing. And
she tells you, you're in there, you're coughing, you're spitting
up blood. And they go to ask the supervisor that they feel faint,
dizzy, can they sit down? And the supervisor screams at them,
"If you walk away from your place once more, we're going
to mark you absent for the day!"
AMY GOODMAN: I was interested that Superior
Foods said that they must comply with local labor law. What is
the local labor law in Guatemala?
CHARLES KERNAGHAN: It's extremely contradictory.
It defines a child as someone who's under fourteen years of age.
So, legally in Guatemala you could work from fourteen up. But
then they have loopholes so that ten- or eleven-year-olds can
work, if it's an apprenticeship and if their parents agree and
if it's light work. It's not very good labor law. It says at one
place the work week is works forty-five hours. In the next sentence,
it says it's forty-eight hours. I mean, it's all over the map,
and it's not enforced. There is absolutely 100% zero enforcement
of these labor laws.
And the thing about CAFTA, we've had worker
rights language in agreements with Central America and the Caribbean
since 1983, when the first Caribbean-based Initiative Expansion
Act came on board. So we had internationally recognized worker
rights standards in our trade benefit programs with Central America
since 1983. It's twenty-four years later. We have the same worker
rights language in the CAFTA, and nothing changes.
The children are working. There's no unions.
In the apparel industry in Guatemala, there's 900,600 workers.
There's a hundred workers organized in a union, which means that
the unionization rate amongst the apparel workers is one-tenth
of 1%. These workers in this Legumex factory never even heard
of a union. We said, "Do you have a union?" They look
at us. We said, "Do you know what a union is?" They'd
say, "Well, not really. What is it?" I mean, it's out
AMY GOODMAN: Explain CAFTA. Explain its
effect and the role of the Democrats and the Republicans.
CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well you know, the
CAFTA agreement just squeaked through with two votes in the House.
It was not very popular. It's certainly not popular in Central
America. People see what's going on. So this is an agreement --
AMY GOODMAN: The Central American Free
CHARLES KERNAGHAN: The Central America
Free Trade Agreement. This is an agreement which -- you know,
the administration was just desperate to keep some sort of momentum
with these free trade agreements, and they figured they could,
you know, do this with Central America. We have six free trade
agreements now in the United States with countries like Jordan,
which was -- it turned into slavery and human trafficking.
But, essentially, you know, it's opening
up Central America to US multinational corporations. It's got
all the investment rights down. In fact, the US trade representative
went to bat for pharmaceutical companies to make sure that those
countries in Central America couldn't make generic drugs. So the
US trade representative, like, fought like mad to make sure we
defended the pharmaceutical companies in the United States, the
multinationals. But when it came to worker rights, you had the
same language, which was meaningless, and there's no attempt to
enforce the labor laws.
I mean, it's a bad agreement, and it's
not good for the people of Guatemala. It's not good for the people
of the United States. And it really just squeaked through by two
votes, and if they hadn't been buying Congress people off, it
never would have passed.
AMY GOODMAN: Charlie Kernaghan, I want
to thank you very much for being with us. Charlie Kernaghan is
director of the National Labor Committee. We will link to their
report, "Harvest of Shame," at our website, democracynow.org.
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