Child Labor in the Fields: Tobacco Picking

By Susan MacLaury

Just a month ago, we posted pictures of Victor, Zulema and Perla, the three American teen migrant farm workers we had profiled in our 2011 film, The Harvest (La Cosecha). We were reintroduced at Shine Global’s 10th anniversary party and over the weekend we had a chance to learn in depth how they were since making this film, the effects it had had on them, and where they currently were in their lives.

It was great hearing how Zulema was a college freshman, Perla was planning to go to graduate school, and Victor was achieving his dream of becoming a car mechanic. Still, we knew that all had family members, some of them younger siblings, a few of the hundreds of thousands still working in the fields with minimal protections.

That point was brought home to me today when a friend sent me this clip about a current Human Rights Watch campaign to educate the public about the poisonous effects of picking tobacco on underage workers. Memories surfaced about our research into this subject, interviews with prospective film subjects, production of The Harvest (La Cosecha), and our screenings on Capitol Hill in 2011 to try to convince lawmakers to vote in the CARE Act (Children’s Act for Responsible Employment) sponsored by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard. Both she and then Secretary of the US Department of Labor, Hilda Solis, fought hard, but in vain, for legislative reform for young farm workers.

Human Rights Watch has commissioned multiple investigative studies on the wellbeing of young farmworkers over the last 15 years with some successes. In 2014, some of the major US tobacco growers banned children under 16 from working in the tobacco fields, but excluded older teens from their policies, teens who are still vulnerable to the dangerous effects of tobacco picking. Shine Global applauds them for their continued concern. We believe that the powerful imagery they employ as documentarians will make a difference in the lives of these children and urge you to watch and act.

Notes From Susan: 76 years is long enough

12-year old American migrant worker cuts onions instead of going to school. (Photo Credit: U. Roberto Romano for The Harvest)

12-year old American migrant worker Zulema cuts onions instead of going to school. (Photo Credit: U. Roberto Romano for The Harvest)

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.

General Motors joined Eva Longoria to screen The Harvest/La Cosecha in DC

General Motors sponsored a screening of THE HARVEST/LA COSECHA with Executive Producer Eva Longoria in Washington DC June 16th

General Motors sponsored a screening of THE HARVEST/LA COSECHA with Executive Producer Eva Longoria in Washington DC June 16th

General Motors supported Shine Global and the child migrant farm working community by sponsoring a screening of The Harvest/La Cosecha in Washington, DC.  The event was hosted at the Capitol Visitors last Thursday, June 16th, by Eva Longoria, Shine Global, and GM.  GM’s support of the screening enabled Shine Global to show The Harvest/La Cosecha to members of Congress and their staff and aides as well as key activists and political organizers to illustrate the lives of the child farmworkers in the US who work to feed us all.  Earlier in the day, Eva Longoria joined Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard and other activists for children’s rights to introduce the CARE Act , which aims to raise the minimum age for children working in agriculture and offer them more protections than they have under the Federal Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Roybal-Allard joined Eva Longoria at the screening and spoke again about the need to provide greater protection for farmworker children.  “I simply do not believe that our child labor laws reflect how we as Americans value our children,” she said.  Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of United Farm Workers of America and activist for farmworkers’ rights, also attended the screening.  She has worked tirelessly to ensure that all farmworkers have rights and was brought to tears by the film.

General Motors is committed to building a healthy global community. The GM Foundation focuses on four key areas: education, health and human services, environment and energy, and community development. The foundation consistently serves as a leader in educational support within corporate giving programs. In health and human services, they provide support in research, prevention, and treatment of various conditions. In the area of environment and energy, the GM foundation is dedicated to providing support to organizations that aid in the protection of human health, natural resources, and the global environment. Within community development, the GMF supports programs that strengthen community awareness and improvement.

Their combined efforts within these four areas work towards the broader goal of building a healthy global community. The foundation works not just in the US but globally, funding programs in over 200 countries around the world. The diversity of their commitment allows the foundation to do make remarkable gains for humanity in a broad array of issues.

Shine Global would like to thank General Motors for their support of The Harvest/La Cosecha and the rights of child farmworkers.

Directed by the acclaimed director and human rights activist U. Roberto Romano, The Harvest/La Cosecha will be coming to theaters in New York and Los Angeles this summer and 30 other communities for special one-night screenings.  Please contact us if you’d like your community to be on of them!

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Eva Longoria and Congresswoman Lucille Roybal Allard Introduce CARE act to protect child farmworkers in the US

Eva Longoria, Executive Producer of the documentary THE HARVEST/LA COSECHA, at a press conference with Direcotr U Roberto Romano and Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard

Eva Longoria, Executive Producer of the documentary THE HARVEST/LA COSECHA, at a press conference with Director U Roberto Romano and Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard to introduce the CARE Act to protect child farmworkers

Capitol Hill, Washington– At a press conference on Capitol Hill Thursday, June 16th, Actor and Activist Eva Longoria and Shine Global joined Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (CA-34) and other child advocates in announcing the introduction of “The Children’s Act for Responsible Employment” (CARE), legislation which ensures adequate protections for children working in our nation’s agricultural fields.

“Agriculture is the only industry governed by labor laws that allow children as young as 12 to work with virtually no restrictions on the number of hours they spend in the fields outside of the school day,” Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard said.  “Tragically, unable to keep up with the competing demands of long work hours in the fields and school, a recent report found that child farmworkers drop out of school at four times the national dropout rate – slamming the door shut on the very pathway that could one day help them escape a lifetime of unrelenting work harvesting our crops.  I simply do not believe that our child labor laws reflect how we as Americans value our children.”

Exposing the hardships of child farmworkers, THE HARVEST/LA COSECHA, a new film by Shine Global, U. Roberto Romano and Executive Producer Eva Longoria, examines the day-to-day lives of child migrant laborers.  The film tells the stories of three adolescents who travel with their families across thousands of miles to pick crops in southern Texas, northern Michigan and northern Florida during the harvest season.  Along the way, they face back breaking labor in 100-degree heat, physical hazards from pesticides, the emotional burden of helping their families through economic crises when work opportunities dry up, separation from their families and peer groups and dwindling hope for their educational and economic advancement. The events surrounding the introduction of CARE also featured a special same-day screening of the documentary on Capitol Hill.  The film will be released theatrically in Los Angeles and in New York in July, along with special screenings in 30 cities nationally, and it will premier on Epix TV October 5th.

“I applaud Eva Longoria, Robin Romano and Shine Global for using the power of film to expose the plight of child farmworkers in The Harvest/La Cosecha.  As this film documents, children in agriculture too often work in dangerous and exploitive conditions, which are illegal in every other industry,” Congresswoman Roybal-Allard said.  “I commend them for their work to shed light on the lives of these children and for their dedication to passing the CARE Act, which would end this unacceptable double standard in our nation’s child labor laws.”

Actor, activist, and philanthropist Eva Longoria said, “I want to commend Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard for her leadership in Congress on the CARE Act.  Using my voice to help Shine Global and U. Roberto (Robin) Romano raise awareness about the plight of farmworker children in agriculture has been an incredible honor. This has been one of the most important issues I have had the opportunity to work on.”

“Very few of us understand the true cost of the produce that we buy in grocery stores every day,” said Susan MacLaury, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Shine Global.  “While we only pay 80 cents a pound for tomatoes, the child who may have picked them has paid with his or her future.”

Albie Hecht, Co-Founder of Shine Global and Chairman of the Shine Global Board of Directors, said, “Kids who work all day in fields, and have to move every six months to follow the harvest, don’t focus on school.  Their friendships suffer. Their physical health suffers.  It is very hard for them to grow and develop, and many give up on life dreams or career ambitions.  All they see is the harvest.”

While retaining current exemptions for family farms, the CARE Act would bring age and work hour standards for children in agriculture up to the standards for children working in all other industries.  That would mean, under CARE, that teenagers would be required to be at least 14 years of age to work in agriculture and at least 18 years of age to perform particularly hazardous work.

In addition to addressing the age and hour requirements for child farmworkers, CARE addresses several other problem areas:

•    To serve as a stronger deterrent for employers who violate child labor laws, the bill establishes a minimum penalty for child labor violations and increases the maximum civil monetary penalties from $11,000 to $15,000.  The bill also imposes a criminal penalty of up to 5 years imprisonment for willful or repeat violations that lead to the death or serious injury of a child worker.

•    To provide children with greater protections, CARE raises the labor standards for pesticide exposure to the levels currently enforced by the EPA.

In addition to Eva Longoria and Congresswoman Roybal-Allard, speakers at the press conference included: Thomas A. Saenz, President & General Counsel, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF); Antonia Cortese, Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers and co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition; Reid Maki, Coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition who released the National Consumers League’s results of a consumer survey on attitudes about child labor in agriculture; and Norma Flores López, Director of the Children in the Fields Campaign at the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), and a former child migrant farmworker.
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The Harvest/La Cosecha wins Outstanding Filmmaker Award at San Antonio Film Festival!

San Antonio Film awardThe Harvest/La Cosecha won the Outstanding Filmmaker Award at the San Antonio Film Festival last night.  The documentary follows 3 of the estimated 400,000 children who leave behind their homes, friends, and schools to migrate from state to state and crop to crop picking the food we all eat–all without the protection of child labor laws.

Director U. Roberto Romano began filming The Harvest/La Cosecha in 2007 and spent the ensuing years traveling over 75,000 miles through 24 states filming and meeting farmworkers families.  His commitment to the cause of helping migrant child farmworkers, who lack the protections all other American children enjoy,  shine brightly in this film about their lives and their struggle to help their families survive.

Shine Global would like to thank everyone who made this film possible including our many supporters.

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