tv Fault Lines Al Jazeera October 25, 2013 9:30pm-10:01pm EDT
children once sacrificed their childhoods, even their lives, working in american mills, mines and factories. the us rooted out child labor practices 75 years ago. but today, us agriculture remains a stronghold for child labor. >> i know most kids come out here to help their parents out, get the money to pay the bills. >> it's just another day on the fields of america. >> hi, can you tell me your name? >> gabriella. workers like gabriella are not uncommon.
>> how old are you? >> nine. >> how old were you when you first started working out here? >> seven. >> seven! >> the us government estimates that nearly 10 percent of hired field workers in this country are children. >> when it comes to children, it is a big deal. young children that we heard about, collecting blueberries, 3 and 5 years old, 7 years old, and the rationale was, because their hands are so tender and small, that they would not crush the blueberries. >> what they're doing is noble, and helping the family, but they need to break the cycle. >> if the public were more aware, i think they'd be outraged. >> this week on fault lines investigates children at work in agriculture, america's hidden harvest.
>> mariana and her children follow the harvest across texas, into new mexico and colorado. they live in their home in laredo, texas, for only part of the year. onions have to be harvested by hand. workers clip off the roots and green tops, and collect them into burlap bags to cure in the field. >> the workers earn between 80 cents to $1.75 per bag of onions. for the young men that work at a very fast clip that means that they could potentially earn up to $20 an hour. however most of these people are earning less than $10. that means that there's an incentive for families to bring their kids up. the kid's bags are counted towards their parent totals,
thereby making them more productive. >> it also means these children are making far less than the minimum wage. the us government estimates that hundreds of thousands of children like anabella and evelyn, are hired to work in the fields. it can be back-breaking work. >> currently federal law allows for children as young as 12 to work out in the fields an unlimited amount of hours outside of school. in any other industry, kids need to be 16 years old to be able to work. there are some exemptions that allow 14 or 15 year olds, but they are very limited hours they can work and they have to work with their school system. you don't see any of that in agriculture. as long as you're 12, you have your parent with you or some sort of permission from your parent then you're allowed to work an unlimited amount of hours. >> back in 1938, the law was mostly established for children
of farm owners. more of a "i'm a farm owner, i have children, it's okay to have my 12 year old, and in many instances, my 10 year old to work in the fields with me." but that was a personal relationship, obviously. now we're looking at children working for someone else, and the law, they fall under that loophole. >> you work pretty hard out there. >> so like we can go more faster and we can leave. because it's hard to cut them and pick them. >> all over the country, children like evelyn put in long days, in extreme temperatures sometimes without shelter and access to facilities. they are exposed to pesticides over long periods of time. >> have you ever felt sick because of chemicals on the plants? >> um, ya, actually i have. >> you can actually see em' on
the plants. extreme poverty can leave few other options. laredo, texas, sits just inside the us border with mexico. this school has some of the highest numbers of migrant farmworker children in the area. they travel with their families to other states to work for part of the year changing schools in the middle of a term. like mariana's daughter, anabella, who works in the onion fields. at 14 years old, she is in the 7th grade, and behind in school. she struggles with reading. >> when i get to one school, like, they're teaching me like something else in one school, in another school they're teaching something else, so that like how hard it is to catch up.
right now i'm only failing 2 classes. >> noemi ochoa advocates for school children who are also migrants workers. she began working in the fields with her own migrant parents at age 9. >> my dad, every day, 4 o'clock in the morning, my dad, (knocking) "levantesan." right? how many of you get up that early, 4 or 5 in the morning to go out to the fields? it's not easy, right? how many of you started working younger than 10 years old? >> migrant chidren have to leave school early, and come to school late, perhaps go to a school in another state. the curriculum is different, different teachers, different friends, different text books, different assessments. right now the association of farmworker opportunity out of
washington, dc is still quoting a 60% drop out rate nationally for migrant students. >> i'm one of the lucky ones that i actually convinced my parents that i don't want to get out of school, but there are cases where others have to get out and missing their education, have to stay behind, so many grade levels. missing out on credits and classes. >> alejandra flores is doing well in school. she began working in the cotton fields at age 10. >> from what i've seen, there's no rules. i've seen people younger than me work in the fields, and there's no one there to stop them and tell them, "you know what, you're not supposed to be here, you're supposed to be at school. the people that hire you to do the job, the employers ask, "is she 12 is she 13," they just want their job done, and fast.
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on a commercial onion farm in texas we found gabriella, age nine. she is not a legal age to work. but nobody here was checking. >> so what grade are you in at school? >> second grade. the us is one of only three countries that have not ratified the un's convention on the rights of the child. and the us rules on child labor in agricultural haven't changed in over 40 years. >> some legislators have tried to raise the minimum age for farm workers. the care act of 2009 would have brought it up to 14, the same as it is for every other industry. however, this bill was opposed by the farm lobby, so after it was introduced to congress, it was referred to committee, where it died.
>> we've come to washington dc to talk to one of the biggest lobbies for agricultural interests, the american farm bureau federation. spending close to $6 million on lobbying for agriculture in one year, it's a major player keeping government regulation off of farms and big agro businesses. i'm meeting kristi boswell, the director of congressional relations. she works on labor and immigration. >> why is it that agriculture is the only industry that needs an exemption to the minimum age requirements? >> frankly it's the nature of our industry. this is a way of life. this is not a job. it is not a task. and i have the passion for agriculture because i was able to feed a bottle calf when i was a child and help my dad with field work. it is a different type of industry. >> how different is the experience of someone who is working legally on the farm at a young age, like 12, 13, 14 year old. how different is their
experience than say, your experience where it was your parents' farm? >> 12, 13, 14 year old are not legally working. >> yeah, because the minimum age is 12, right? >> 16. it's 16 unless for a family farm. >> no, but people can be 12 years old and work on the field. >> no. it's 16. >> not according to the us department of labor. the minimum age standards for agricultural employment allows children as young as 12. and even 10-years-olds can be employed harvesting crops by hand. the rules don't apply to farm children on their own parent's farms. the people who lobby congress for labor and immigration issues aren't even aware of what the laws are. >> all our employers are abiding by the laws and regulations and they're not. by and large there is bad actors but by and large they are paying minimum wage or higher to everyone working legally on
their farm and making sure that they're not being exploited. >> agrictulure ranks near the top of most hazardous work, along with mining and construction. for workers aged 15 to 17, the risk of fatal injury is four times as much as other industries, according to the labor department. but many farmers in the us are against changing the old child labor laws. we're going to meet one, a member of the farm bureua and a cattle rancher in montana. >> dennis rehberg, he's a former congressman who today works as a lobbyist here in washington dc. >> he served in congress for 12 years and sat on a house committee for us agriculture. he was given an award by the farm bureau for representing its interests while in office. >> we were in texas watching the onion picking process, and i
just want to show you what that looked like, they're sharpening the sheers. gabriella, she's 9. so what's your reaction to seeing kids like that out in the field working on a... >> see i have no context. i could tell you that i have had my son or daughter out. >> so they're working on a farm. >> again i. >> it belongs to somebody who has no, it's a subcontractor that pays them is hired by the farmer. >> it can't speak to it because it just don't' know it. you've been there. i can speak to my own place, i wasn't necessarily a stay at home dad but i was the primary caretaker. my daughter i had a kelty kid pack on the back of my, on my back and i carried her around while i was fencing, while i was herding cattle, and it gave her a solid work ethic. >> presumably we say child labor is wrong. should that be prevented in any way or should we keep the laws
as it is where that's legal. >> it is not necessarily legal, the fact that there are laws in place and there are regulations in place. >> so can you explain why it's not? how that would not be legal? because right now the flsa says that over 12 if you have your parents' permission. >> and what you're suggesting is that government take primacy over a family. that the government has a better understanding than parents, than the mom and dad. i hope we don't go into a situation in this country where the federal government things they can better raise the children than us. that is a fundamental different of philosophy. but to those who believe the federal government is solution and there are those of us who think that the federal government because of the one size fits all attitude or standard is the problem. >> we're in northern kentucky. we've heard about a family that picks tobacco.
some of them are under the age of eighteen, meaning they're old enough to work in the fields but not old enough to use the finished product. >> this family is getting ready for a day in the tobacco fields. they would prefer we didn't say their last names. tobacco has to be cut when it is very dry to avoid the risk of green sickness, basically an overdose of nicotine through the skin. working in high humidity or in sweaty clothes is sometimes enough to cause symptoms of dizziness and nausea. in the us children as young as 7 have been found to suffer from the sickness according to the department of labor. carlos is a 10-year-old boy who has come with his family to the field. he is still too small to do the
cutting and stacking, but he helps out in other ways. he says he's tried it, but he can't push the tough stalks through the stakes. >> what's hard about it? >> sometimes it's too hard. >> to push it? yeah, you need strength to push it down. >> but he says that he does work on other parts of tobacco cultivation, like planting the seedlings, weeding. >> when it gets more taller, you have to cut the grass, and then you have to cut the flower. >> he says he also helps sort the leaves. >> and then the sticks we leave them, we're going to throw
them. >> are you able to do that? that part? >> yeah. >> the association of schools of public health reports that on a humid day, a worker can absorb the equivalent of 36 cigarettes working with green tobacco. >> and when you do get a chance to do a little bit of work and you give that money to your family, how does that make you feel? >> proud. >> why do you feel that? >> because i'm helping my family. with child labor, everyone involved has a stake in keeping the laws as they are. farmers need their crops harvested, and families living below the poverty line need the added income. there are few voices raised to speak for the migrant children,
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>> back in the 1930 a lot of the folks that were working out in the fields tended to be black. now those people are latinos that are coming in. and the latinos are just as disenfranchised, they don't have a lot of power. and especially with the current climate around immigration and how we have seen a lot of racial tension towards latinos, it has made it very difficult for us to be able to update these laws that haven't been touched in decades. >> we tried to move forward on changing the regulations in terms of how young children are treated in the agricultural areas and we ran up against a lot of opposition from major industry, the farm bureau and big business.
we're talking about special interests here, big special interests. it was kind of a david and goliath if you ask me. >> in 2009, hilda solis became the first latina to ever hold a position in a president's cabinet while in office, solis introduced updates to the child labor law that would have kept children out of hazardous farm work. she was blasted by members of congress for over-reaching her powers. >> i'm troubled by the fact that where you start is so contrary to a way of life, to common sense and to the that things are done. norma flores lopez was part of a coalition that worked to get the changes passed. >> some of the mis-information that we saw out there was that children would not be able to do any type of work in agriculture, that they wouldn't be able to operate a battery operated flashlight or to be able to use a hand-held screwdriver. >> it was so broad that it banned someone under the age of 16 from using a power-driven
screwdriver. >> they were led to believe that they wouldn't be able to work on any farm, even if it was their parents. that the parent exemption would be done away with. >> there are some things people in dc don't understand how it plays out on the ground. >> reyberg led the charge in congress to ensure the changes never left the ground. >> we are all interested in safe work environments. we don't want our children at risk however one of the ways you learn about safety is working, working with your parent, your neighbor, a grandparent or a friend. and this would have removed that opportunity. >> facing intense public pressure, the obama administration withdrew the proposed changes in 2012. then, when the president entered his second term in early 2013, solis resigned. >> you can present your side of the facts to as many people as
you can but it wasn't enough, it wasn't enough. >> we just met up with another migrant family, a mother and her son. we're following them to bring lunch to the father and brother. the brother is 16 and that's interesting because some of the big tobacco companies have pledged not to have anybody under 18 working in the fields that they source their tobacco from. >> most big tobacco companies have pledged to eliminate the use of child labor in tobacco production around the world. but under us federal law none of the activity in this tobacco barn is considered particularily
hazardous for children. >> right now, you're looking down from the first level. there's 3 more levels up after that. on the top level, putting in over an eight hour day, a 16 year old. sixteen is old enough to work in most jobs. but in most industries 16-year-olds are barred from doing ones as hazardous as this. straddling loose boards dozens of feet off the ground and without a safety harness.
>> the agriculture industry reaps the benefits of hiring young workers and maintains the statis quo using the rallying cry of protecting the american family farm. for migrant families and their children, there's little chance for a way out. >> what we end up seeing is this generational cycle of poverty that keeps getting perpetuated, where these kids that are dropping out are having to go out in the fields because that's
the only way that they know how to make a living and end up being stuck out there their whole lives, end up taking their children with them. and it ends up keep repeating itself. >> i don't think i even remember having a childhood. it's nothing but work. these are the same people i've seen here since i was small, and they are still here. i don't see them moving up or anything like that.