If I were a poet, this would be my opening line, like A Bed for the Night or A Brief for the Defense or Elegy, but the poem would be darker and full of Bukowski-like heartache and disdain.
But I am not a poet. I am a filmmaker and photographer who has spent more than a decade of my life documenting child labor around the world. I have filmed and photographed and spoken with children who pick the coffee beans we brew on plantations in Kenya, weave the carpets we walk on at looms in India, Pakistan and Nepal, dig for gold while suffocating in mines or dive to their deaths from fishing boats in Ghana. Children who are trafficked to and from Mexico and Thailand at age 12 or 14, and pushed into hotels by middle-aged johns while still bearing the scars of their beatings from their pimps, children on fishing platforms miles off the coast of Indonesia where they are trapped for three months at a time hauling in nets filled with teri (a fish that is the main ingredient of those multi colored crackers we dip into sweet sauce at Chinese restaurants around the world), child soldiers in Uganda forced to burn their families alive or amputate the arms and legs their siblings, trafficked children on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast who, far from home, bear the scars of the machetes they use so we can enjoy the sweet taste of chocolate. For me, child labor is, unfortunately, a target-rich environment. Even here in the United States of America there are hundreds of thousands of children planting and picking the fruits and vegetables that we eat.
Ten years ago, the ILO created World Day Against Child Labor, but for the 215 million children who work around the world, this day should be their day every day. And this should be the day where we also remember the 250,000 to 400,000 American children who are systematically exploited every year as they harvest the food that we eat.
They are there right now in our fields, working at far younger ages, for longer hours at exploitative wages and at greater risk to their health than any other children in America, because of a loophole in Federal law that permits children as young as 12, and sometimes younger, to work in 100-degree heat in a tomato field for 16 hours, but does not allow that same child to work in an air-conditioned office until she is 16. And that should not be so.
In December of 2000, President Bill Clinton signed ILO Convention 182, the Convention concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor. In June of 2000, Human Rights Watch issued its seminal report Fingers To The Bone: United States Failure To Protect Child Farmworkers. In 2001, Senator Tom Harkin re-introduced the CARE Bill (Children’s Act for Responsible Employment, which has been introduced every year since then, most recently by Representative Roybal-Allard), which would have brought us into compliance with Convention 182.
Yet in 2002 Len Morris and I documented numerous abuses of this convention in Texas while filming Stolen Childhoods, abuses that, sadly, continue to this day.
So while Senator Harkin points at Uzbek cotton and other crops and commodities as an example of the worst forms of child labor in a speech he gave before the Senate commemorating World Day Against Child Labor last year:
“The work performed by these children, stooped over to pick cotton under a hot sun, also falls under the category of hazardous work. Hazardous work is by its very nature likely to harm the health and safety of children. Hazardous work exposes children to physical, emotional, or even sexual abuse. It includes children working underground in mines, underwater, at dangerous heights, or in confined spaces. Children work with dangerous machinery, equipment, and tools. They may work in unhealthy environments, exposed to hazardous substances like nicotine in tobacco fields or to extreme temperatures, noise levels, or vibrations that can damage growing bodies. Some children are even forced to work such long hours that they are up for entire nights or are not allowed to return to their own home at the end of the day.”
The sad truth is we do little at home for our own children who work under similar conditions in our agricultural sector. The level of disconnect is stratospherically high.
Of the Eight Core ILO Conventions that most counties have signed onto, the United States has implemented only two and the Convention On The Rights of The Child, the most ratified Convention in the history of the ILO, has only three countries that haven’t ratified. Somalia and Southern Sudan are two of them. Sadly, we are the third.
While the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs lists 130 goods from 71 countries that should be banned under the TVPRA, I have personally documented and spoken to American children who have done the same work under the same conditions for 17 of those goods here in this country. Even a proposed set of safety regulations aimed at minimizing harm to children hired to work in the fields, that would have regulated the kind of hazardous labor described above by Senator Harkin, were withdrawn in a heartbreaking about-face, by the Department of Labor on April 26 of this year. These new rules would have updated the decades-old list of tasks considered hazardous and therefore off limits for hired farmworkers under age 16, but over 180 elected officials in Washington stood in opposition to the first changes in agricultural safety regulations for children in 40 years, recommendations that National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health made nearly a decade ago. They include Senators Jerry Moran of Kansas and Ben Nelson of Nebraska along with Representatives Mike Lee of Utah and Denny Rehberg of Montana. In what can only be considered a part of a stunning campaign of disinformation sponsored by the Farm Bureau, Senator Mike Lee of Utah sponsored the Saving the Family Farm Act of 2012. The family farm was never in danger.
Just as child labor was a sign of the social inequities of our Gilded Age, our child labor problem in agriculture exposes our own excesses. The failure of the Fair Labor Standards Act to protect children in agriculture has deep roots. Some say it was to protect the family farm (there is that term again), but when you look at history, you get closer to the heart of the truth when you understand that those who picked our crops then and now were the victims of racial and class exclusion. As Marjorie Elizabeth Wood pointed out in her excellent Op-Ed piece for the New York Times:
“This is not the first time reform of agricultural child labor laws has been beaten back by a supposed threat to the family farm. In the 1920s a proposed Child Labor Amendment to the Constitution was fiercely contested. The amendment would have given Congress power to regulate the labor of people under age 18. But by orchestrating a sophisticated campaign that included front groups with names such as Citizens’ Committee to Protect Our Homes and Children, business interests frightened farm families with propaganda about a government conspiracy to forbid chores on the family farm.”
In Fields of Peril, the 2010 report for Human Rights Watch, written by Zama Coursen-Neff and photographed by me, we again learned that agriculture is the most dangerous work open to children in the United States, where 12- to 16-year-olds—and on small farms children of any age—can be hired. These migrant and seasonal child farmworkers, who are at the heart of my recent documentary, The Harvest/La Cosecha, drop out of school at four times the national average, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and social failure. They suffer the same abuses that we do not tolerate anywhere else in the world.
So on this day where we acknowledge our commitment to eliminating the worst forms of child labor globally by 2016, the continued lack of support for the CARE Bill and this administration’s promise not to revisit the revised safety standards mean that the United States will continue to remain non-compliant, even though nearly 90% of Americans polled say that they would pay more for their food to in an effort to treat farmworkers better and end the cycle of poverty that continues to push our own children into the field.
Nelson Mandela once said “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
What I have known for a decade is that where children in American agriculture are concerned, the soul of America is languishing.
My friend Jason Guest sent me Proverbs 31:8-9 in an e-mail last week. It instructs us to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
On this day when we are asked to stand up for the children of the world, we need to ask ourselves: “where is our sense of grace when we say grace?” Let us remember and speak up for the American children who are sacrificing their futures so that we can eat.
Producer, Director, Director of Photography, U.R. (Robin) Romano made The Harvest/La Cosecha, feature documentary, produced by Shine Global, on the life of migrant children and their families in America. Romano was co-director (with Miki Mistrati) and director of photography on Dark Side of Chocolate, a feature documentary, produced by Bastard Films – Denmark, on slavery in the West Africa cocoa trade and co-director (with Len Morris) and director of photography on Stolen Childhoods, a feature documentary on child labor for Galen Films and Romano Productions.