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Kids Or Human Capital? Why We Need Another Cesar Chavez

Fernando Hurtado |
April 1, 2014 | 4:45 p.m. PDT

Contributor

We have yet to realize Chavez's vision. (Wikimedia Commons)
We have yet to realize Chavez's vision. (Wikimedia Commons)
It’s been nearly 40 years since farm-laborer-turned-civil-rights-activist Cesar Chavez’s non-violent boycotts led the state of California to pass the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, giving gave farm workers the right to unionize and bargain collectively for improved working conditions. 

With "Cesar Chavez," the film chronicling Chavez's fight for workers' rights, playing in theatres nationwide, it's time to start thinking about how much things have actually changed for farm laborers in the United States.

When Chavez was working in the field in the 1940s, workers were complaining about the lack of clean water, toilets and fair pay. 

Now, 21 years after Chavez’s death, countless streets across the country bear his name and school murals are emblazoned with his face, but the United States and other activists have yet to realize Chavez’s vision: worker’s rights for everyone.

What the U.S. Government doesn’t seem to understand, specifically, is that "everyone" includes children.

SEE ALSO: Film Review: 'Cesar Chavez'

In August 2012, NBC Bay Area published an article titled, “Child Labor: Young Hands Picking Our Food." The article—yes, written in 2012 and not 1912—describes in detail the workdays of dozens of child workers, some who began working as young as eight years old.

“We get tired and like we get kind of tired and our arms hurt,” a 15-year-old worker tells NBC.

But the 15-year-old’s arms aren’t hurting under the counter or behind closed doors in an underground farm.

Child laborers in the San Joaquin Valley are working 10 hours a day in 106 degree heat because the Fair Labor Standards Act  (FLSA) of 1938 allows them to do so.

According to the FLSA, “The Federal Child Labor Provisions in Agriculture do not require minors to obtain ‘working papers’ or ‘work permits,’ though some states do,” nor does it limit the number of hours or times a day that young farm workers may legally work. To be fair, some states do.

But because life is unfair, California, the state producing half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables, isn’t one of those states.

Currently, there are an estimated 500,000 child farmworkers in the United States, according to the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. In interviews with some, an overwhelming majority claim they labor to help their families survive.

In California, the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement within the Department of Industrial Relations does a pretty good job of outlining what kind of child labor has limitations and which doesn’t. Hidden among a list of those exempt from occupational restrictions are children working in agriculture.

“Parents or guardians who employ their children in agriculture,” reads the document, “do not require permits.”

In the same section, the state of California states that “minors irregularly employed in odd jobs in private homes, such as baby-sitting, lawn mowing, and leaf raking, do not need to obtain a permit" to employ and work, either.

Phew, because child laborers in the Central Valley are working in 106-degree weather for the same reasons that Molly is dog-sitting in San Francisco.

The way federal law paints it right now, children as young as 12 years old are allowed to work on large American farms. In smaller farms, there are no age restrictions. But in large farms in states like California and North Carolina, kids well below 10 are flying under the radar, according to Fusion.

Perhaps what needs to change is not a law from 1938 that’s controlling who’s working our crops nor who runs these farms. What needs to change, and fast, is who’s running our government.

When the president of the American Farm Bureau doesn’t know that it’s legal for a 12-year-old to work on a field he profits off of, maybe it’s time to make some personnel changes.

When 85 percent of farmworkers are Hispanic, according to Human Rights Watch, maybe it’s time for another Cesar Chavez to step up to the plate. But this time he needs to forego the title of “civil rights activist” and adopt “president of the United States of America.”

 

Reach Contributor Fernando Hurtado here; follow him on Twitter here.



 

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