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Published: Sunday, 6/20/2010

Farm labor violators facing new scrutiny


WHITE LAKE, N.C. - The Obama Administration has opened a broad campaign of enforcement against farmers who employ children and underpay workers, hiring hundreds of investigators and raising fines for labor and wage violators.

A flurry of fines and mounting public pressure on blueberry farmers in North Carolina are only the opening salvos, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in an interview. Ms. Solis, the daughter of an immigrant farm worker, said she was making protection of farm workers a priority. At the same time, Congress is considering whether to rewrite the law that still allows 12-year-olds to work on farms during the summer with almost no limits.

Child and rights advocates said they were encouraged by these signs of federal resolve, but they are waiting to see how wide and lasting the changes would be.

Child labor is a much less common sight in northwest Ohio since the establishment of a labor agreement with area food processors and growers in 1992, said Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, which negotiated that agreement.

He said the agreement for the picking of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and other crops converted workers from contractors to employees.

That pretty much ended the practice of families working together in the fields. As part of the agreement, FLOC pushed for grants to improve early education for children in the migrant camps.

Mr. Velasquez said the fact that the Department of Labor has hired new enforcement officers is a hopeful sign the crackdown will make a difference.

He said child labor among migrants is not based on greed but economic necessity.

"Until you've got a change in the industry, how do you tell a family you can't work? Economic reality pushes people to do things you wouldn't want to do," Mr. Velasquez said.

He said he worked in the fields when he was 6 years old because for his family, "the alternative was not to eat."

Across the country, hundreds of thousands of children under 18 toil each year, harvesting crops from apples to onions, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch detailing the hazards to their health and schooling and criticizing the Labor Department for past inaction.

"The news from North Carolina shows the value of strong enforcement," said Zama Coursen-Neff, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch and the report's author. "We also need to change the law to make sure this isn't a flash in the pan."

A federal law adopted in 1938 exempts agriculture from child-labor rules that apply to other industries. It permits children 12 and up to work without limits outside of school hours, exposing them, critics say, to pesticides that may pose a special threat to growing bodies and robbing too many of childhood itself.

After years of what rights groups say was lax attention, the Labor Department last week announced a large increase in the fines that farmers can face for employing children, to as much as $11,000 per child, from around $1,000.

On May 24, the department fined a labor contractor and a farmer in Arizona more than $30,000 for employing 10-year-old and 11-year-old children, underpaying workers, and other violations.

In an interview, Ms. Solis said she had added more than 250 workplace investigators, bringing the department's total to near 1,000, and started a campaign to educate workers about their rights. Acknowledging that officials had sometimes ignored child farm violations, she added, "I am totally changing the direction of this department."

The campaign started last summer and is accelerating in the current harvest season.

A proposal to ban the hiring of 12-year-olds and 13-year-olds, cap working hours by 14-year-olds and 15-year-olds, and keep teenagers out of hazardous jobs is gaining support in Congress. About 90 representatives have co-sponsored the Care Act, put forth by Lucille Roybal-Allard (D., Calif.)

Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) said he planned to introduce a similar bill in the Senate. The American Farm Bureau, the nation's largest farm lobbying organization, has opposed it, saying it could imperil the tradition of children working in farm communities.

Blade staff writer Tom Troy contributed to this report.

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