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Connecting Threads, Part 2

April 4, 2012

“ ‘As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease’ ” (Genesis 8: 22).

Hundreds of thousands of children under the age of 18 work in agriculture in the US. Precise figures are difficult to come by. But the 2006 Child Agricultural Injury Survey put the number of those under the age of 20 employed in farm work at 307,000. The United Farm Workers Union would place it much higher.

Federal Regulation

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act governs US child labor. Children from the age of 12 on may legally work for any farm with parental consent. No survey could be located re:  the number of children age 12 and under illegally engaging in farm work.

There are no legal limits on the hours children can work in agriculture when school is not in session. Farm workers are not, however, entitled to overtime, and they generally do not receive job benefits. Child farm workers often make less than minimum wage, with pay reduced still further when employers underreport hours and force children to purchase the gloves, tools, and drinking water that employers are actually required by law to supply.

Child Injury and Mortality[i]

Sixteen children died at work in the US last year, twelve of those while employed on farms. If that statistic is not sufficiently shocking, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that 907 young people died on US farms between 1995 – 2002. That averages an astonishing 130 deaths per year.

Human Rights Watch over a decade ago reported on the grave health and educational risks children employed in agriculture face. Farm workers (children and adults) often work with or in vicinity of  dangerous equipment. Again, the 2006 Childhood Agricultural Injury Survey estimated that 22,900 injuries occurred to young people working on farms.

Both adults and children regularly work in fields treated with chemicals, some carcinogenic.  According to the EPA, children ages 3 – 15 may experience three times the cancer threat the same level of chemicals would pose for adults. Simply put, children are more vulnerable to harm.

Politics

The regulations governing child farm work in the US have been hotly contested. But there are estimated to be a million violations per year.

The Department of Labor has been accused of overstepping its bounds. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), for instance, maintains that modern farming equipment is virtually incapable of injuring children. Despite family farm exceptions, farmers and agricultural trade groups argue that additional regulations would interfere with the tradition of family farming.

The political divide has been characterized as not so much between left and right, but between urban and rural.

Witness and Intervention

Nationally and internationally, there are today organizations and government agencies involved in reporting on child labor practices, and advocating against child labor.

The Rainforest Alliance provides farmers with training and technical aid to promote ethically harvested crops. The program offers instruction on improved productivity and crop quality, along with education on the importance of eliminating child and slave labor. Farmers are rewarded with access to a growing market for crops certified as free of such labor, and sold at a higher cost for that reason.

The Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) is a coalition of conservation groups which sets standards for the Rainforest Alliance.

The International Initiative to End Child Labor (IIECL) is an NGO which educates, trains, monitors, and audits  other NGOs with the goal of eradicating the worst forms of child labor in the United States and elsewhere in the world.

The situation is, nonetheless, complex. In Afghanistan and other impoverished nations, particularly where conflict may have reduced the number of available adults, children can add significantly to family income.

In some cultures, women are prohibited (sometimes by law) from working outside the home. When a woman is widowed and there is no extended family on which to rely, children may become the breadwinners of a household by necessity.

When large segments of the population have fallen prey to AIDS or other catastrophic illness, older children – themselves orphaned – may become caregivers to their younger siblings.

Additional factors contributing to child labor globally include:  high unemployment, limited access to education, inadequate laws (and inadequate enforcement of existing laws), and outright suppression of worker rights.

Multiple layers of production, subcontracting, and outsourcing can make it difficult to determine who performed labor at each stage.  Labor departments may be understaffed and underfunded.  Even high profile organizations like UNICEF may have to weigh their criticisms of a given regime or practice against the opportunity to remain in place in a foreign country, and perhaps help to effectuate gradual change.

The Christian Perspective

As Christians and legal professionals, what are we to make of this Gordian knot, these threads so inextricably intertwined?  What role are we meant to play?  The tragedy of the situation is both gripping and overwhelming.  What can a single individual do?

In God’s eyes the lives of these children are priceless.  So, too, then should they be to us.  Their lives of labor are inextricably linked to ours of comfort and ease, whether we wish to acknowledge that connection or not.  We are the nexus of cotton threads extending from Argentina to Zimbabwe; supply lines of every sort extending from the fields to the supermarket, department store, medical facility, cigar club, refrigerator, and walk-in closet; timelines extending from the past to the present and – through us – the future.

Our apathy is not acceptable.  Our guilt alone is not enough.  The small change from our pockets or minor adjustment of our habits will not change this situation.  Nor can it be improved upon overnight, much as we might wish that.

What is required is concentrated effort, sustained over time.  What is required is genuine sacrifice.  William Wilberforce, an English politician, philanthropist, and abolitionist, spearheaded the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for some twenty years, until passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807.  Wilberforce then continued his efforts for another twenty or more years, ultimately achieving passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.  His health had by then entirely failed, but his devotion takes one’s breath away.

That we are still addressing fundamental questions of liberty, justice, and equality nearly two centuries later – some 3500 years after they were first addressed in the Bible – is a reflection of what Christian’s would call the “sin nature” of man.  Our flawed human nature does not change from one generation to the next.  The same problems recur, albeit in different guise, one generation after another.

This might seem discouraging to non-believers, an argument for complacency.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  These are the front lines of the battle between good and evil, a battle each generation must fight for itself.  Christians know something that non-believers do not.  Though the battle may rage on, the war has been won.  It was won for us by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Even the battle is not fought by our strength, but His.  That knowledge is empowering.  It carries us forward to accomplish the impossible.

Make no mistake.  This remains a tragedy.  We should be moved.  We should weep for these children, should pray, advocate, and fight for them.  We may not win the battle.  But our empathy, our common humanity, should be yet more threads drawing us together.


[i] Additional information on child labor in US agriculture can be found in the June 2000 report by Human Rights Watch “Fingers to the Bone:  United States Failure to Protect Child Farmworkers” at
http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/publisher,HRW,,USA,3ae6a8738,0.html.

READERS CAN FIND MY VIEWS ON ABUSE AND ABUSE-RELATED ISSUES AT ANNA WALDHERR A Voice Reclaimed, Surviving Child Abuse  http://www.avoicereclaimed.com

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