By Susan MacLaury
Co-Founder & Executive Director, Shine Global
The September 7th front page of the New York Times features an article titled: “Just 13, and Working Risky 12-Hour Shifts in the Tobacco Fields.” It profiles a young teen named Saray Alvarez who’s spent the last few months working 12 hour shifts in North Carolina tobacco fields. She and other workers poke holes in black garbage bags for their arms and wear these all day in stultifying heat and humidity to protect themselves from nicotine poisoning. As it is, many workers become sickened, experiencing dizziness, nausea, vomiting and irregular heartbeats. These symptoms are undoubtedly exacerbated by the fact that Saray and others can get water only once an hour at most, when her crew traverses a broad field to the side where there are water containers.
Such appalling circumstances are not uncommon and their effects can be lethal as was true for 17-year old Maria Jimenez, two months pregnant, who died one day in August 2008 after picking grapes in the San Joaquin Valley in triple digit temperatures with no water. Despite the efforts of activists such as US Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, who has tried repeatedly to get the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment out of committee to be voted on by the House of Representatives, and former US Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, whose efforts to protect children working in the fields were nullified by the Obama administration in 2012, child farm workers are still unprotected.
It was personally terribly distressing to be reminded how little progress we’ve made in protecting our youngest who risk their health, academics, and futures to feed America. As executive director of Shine Global, I also joined activist Eva Longoria in 2010 to executive produce our documentary, The Harvest (La Cosecha), directed by U. Roberto Romano, that followed three American teen migrant farm workers through the 2009 harvest as they traveled across the US picking crops. It was Shine’s hope that through educational outreach and use of the film by social advocates, this injustice might be addressed.
I am angry – very angry – that hundreds of thousands of American children continue to be discounted and unprotected. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 excludes children working in agriculture from the legal protections afforded to US children in all other spheres. It is perfectly legal in the US today for children as young as 12 to work 12-14 hour days, 7 days a week, under any and all weather conditions. If the farm employs 11 or fewer workers, even these protections are lacking and a child of any age can be forced to work.
I am angry – very angry – that hundreds of thousands of American children – OUR children -are discounted and unprotected. I believe in the power of film to promote change and hopefully films like ours will help make this happen. But it must be now. 76 years to change an inadequate law is long enough. We can and must do much better for our young.