Child Farm Labor

When I was 13 years old (in 1982!), I got a job at a local grocery store, a Jitney Jungle for all of you Mississippians out there. Because it was a grocery store, it was considered, in Mississippi’s infinite wisdom, an agricultural operation. This meant that they could hire people under the age of 16. The Carter administration had raised the federal minimum wage to $3.35 an hour in 1981 (where it would stay until 1990) but the subsequent Reagan admin had made special concessions to the agricultural industry so that they could hire child labor for half that price, $1.67. Jitney was an agricultural operation, so it could hire a good brunt of it’s workers for half the price of a regular human being. There were few limits on what your employer could ask you to do and even if there were, it’s doubtful that employers would have paid attention. The job wasn’t bad but I was white. I can imagine that rural black children in Mississippi conscripted to work on real farms were subjected to horrendous conditions and vast exploitation. This was my first introduction to the world of dirty agricultural politics at the expense of workers who have little rights. It had the added effect of my never voting Republican throughout my adult life, not that Southern Democrats at the time didn’t have their hands in it as well.

Michigan fairs no better than Mississippi. The present laws on hiring child labor in Michigan are absurdly lax. While children who seek to work at fast foods restaurants and formal businesses require permits and are protected under strict accounting measures to insure fair treatment, agricultural work is largely exempt and one can only assume that children of documented and undocumented immigrants fair even worse. Go around to any farm in Michigan and see whose picking your tomatoes. Then, ask yourself, in a climate which produces bigoted laws like that in Arizona, how people too young to protest will speak up against exploitation. While a great many family farms likely responsibly and fairly pass their traditions on to their children through shared work on the farm, the lack of laws to combat true exploitation is disturbing. We made great strides to keep child labor out of the manufacturing sector in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 2010, we would hope that with the industrialization of agriculture, farming would catch up. Clearly, despite denials (read the comments and try not to vomit), slavery is alive and well in the US. A harrowing account of migrant farm labor from 1969 could have been written yesterday.

The Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE Act) was introduced in Congress last year, but has seen little action. I encourage everyone to write their Congressman or Senator to prompt Congress to act to pass this Act, which works to protect child workers from rampant exploitation.

“Child farmworkers as young as 12 years old:
• often work 12 or more hours a day in scorching heat, bending over for hours as they pick fruits or vegetables;
• risk pesticide poisoning and high rates of injury from knives and heavy equipment;
• suffer fatalities at five times the rate of other working youth; and
• have only a 55 percent chance of finishing high school. ”

For an informative video and more info, see the page on the Human Rights Watch site. . Please write your Congressman and encourage them to put the CARE Act back on the drawing table.

You can easily get a message sent through the automatic feature on the Human Rights Watch site, which locates your Congressmen by your Zip Code, presumably. It’s HERE and very easy.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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