Children Exposed, Exploited
on U.S. Farms

by Neve Gordon

from the National Catholic Reporter-Feb. 16, 2001


One of the features characterizing globalization is the erosion of differences. In Italy, McDonald's is almost as popular as pizza, and in China, Coke is slowly replacing tea. Not unlike the culinary dimension, the world is becoming similar in a variety of other ways, including the employment and exploitation of workers.

Damaris (a pseudonym) started working in the broccoli and lettuce fields when she was 13 years old and continued until she was nearly 18. During peak season, she usually worked 14 hours a day, with two 15-minute breaks and a half-hour for lunch. She often worked 85 or 90 hours a week. She suffered daily nosebleeds for months, and several times her blood pressure plummeted and she nearly passed out. She was exposed to pesticide drift and became ill, yet she kept working.

Reading this testimony one tends to think of practices still common in developing countries, or of the conditions to which U.S. laborers were subjected in the late 19th century. Yet, Damaris, now 19, is living in Arizona, and her story is not much different from the stories of hundreds of thousands of other juveniles who labor each year in fields, orchards and packing sheds across the United States.

In 'Fingers to the Bone: United States Failure to Protect Child Farmworkers,' a recent Human Rights Watch report, Lee Tucker claims that agriculture is the most hazardous kind of work in which children are employed. "Juvenile farm workers are routinely exposed to dangerous pesticides, suffering rashes, headaches, nausea and vomiting," Tucker says, and adds that long-term consequences of pesticide poisoning "include cancer, brain damage and learning and memory problems."

One reads in the report that in addition to being endangered, the youth 'face persistent wage exploitation and fraud,' earning as little as $2 an hour, significantly less than the federal minimum wage of $5.15. Prospects for a better future are further jeopardized because only 55 percent graduate from high school.

Ironically, the violation of the basic rights of these children is supported by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which states that children working on farms may be employed from the age of 12 and provides no limitation to the number of hours a child can work. In all other occupations, by contrast, children under the age of 16 are limited to three hours of work per day when school is in session.

Congress exacerbated the existing abuse when it exempted, all farms with fewer than 11 employees from enforcement of Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.' In this way, it deprived many children of their only hope for protection and contributed to the general lack of enforcement characterizing the employment of youth on farms.

Human rights watch points out that while, legally speaking, all children working on farms suffer equal discrimination, de-facto an 'estimated 85 percent of migrant seasonal farm workers nationwide are racial minorities.' In some regions, approximately 99 percent of farm workers are Latino.

Racial discrimination is, once again, tied to poverty. Human Rights Watch points out that the precarious situation of children is often prompted by the exploitation of their parents. Considering that the 1999 average yearly earnings of an adult working on a farm was a mere $7,500, it is hardly surprising that children are sent to work. How else can a family make ends meet?

The maltreatment of children on American farms is part of GLOBALIZATION, in the sense that First World countries no longer rely solely on the Third World for cheap labor. Rather, large segments of society within the United States are subjected to working conditions not unlike those in the developing countries. Whereas many of those abused are migrant workers, it is becoming common to exploit citizens as well. As the advocates of the global market continue to extol the benefits of economic growth, the gap between the rich and the poor widens, and our own backyard continues to be an arena of abuse and subjugation.


Neve Gordon teaches in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University, Israel

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