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The Harvest: new film reveals scourge of child labour in US farming

Rosie Spinks

1st September, 2011

Despite campaigning to reduce child labour internationally, the US is home to at least 230,000 child labourers toiling in the fields to pick blueberries, tomatoes or cotton

From the cocoa plantations of the Ivory Coast to the textile factories of India, the prevalence of child labour in the world today is staggering. The UN estimates that roughly 250 million children are subjected to a life of work instead of schooling, with nearly half that number working full-time.

But now a new film - The Harvest - documents the occurrence of this trend where few would expect to find it: the United States agricultural industry.

U Roberto Romano is an award-winning American filmmaker who spent over a year documenting the lives of three migrant worker families and their children across the US. He said that while he was aware of child labour from his work in other countries, what he found in the US was shocking.

‘I, like many people, thought this was a problem that affected brown skin children in the rest of the world’, Romano told the Ecologist. ‘I didn’t expect to find it here in [the US] with children that were American citizens’.

As the film reveals, not only is child labour happening in the US food system, it’s perfectly legal. This is due to an antiquated exemption built into the Fair Labour Standards Act of 1938, the landmark piece of US legislation that established standard practises like the 40-hour work week and a minimum wage. Roberto explains that agriculture was excluded because of the different food system at the time.

'When the fair labour standards act was written, a huge portion of our food was produced on family farms, so this was designed to help families who needed children to work on their farms’, Roberto said.

Like those profiled in the film, the 230,000 thousand children working in US agriculture today are no longer helping on family farms, which now produce a negligible portion of US agricultural output. Instead, they and their families are included in the 40 per cent of industrial agriculture workers who must move with the harvests if they want to have jobs. Whether it’s blueberries in North Carolina, tomatoes in Florida, or cotton in Arkansas, these families leave their homes for portions of the year and, because of a lack of childcare options, bring their children with them.

‘The larger corporations externalise their responsibility and turn a blind eye’, Roberto said. ‘And a lot of the smaller farmers I dealt with don’t feel like they can refuse the families that extra income if parents bring their children to work. It’s a system that is designed to perpetuate a cycle of poverty and failure’.

In 2009, the United States Department of Labour published a report documenting the goods that are produced as a result of child labour worldwide in an attempt to ‘inform the public of the significant incidence of child labor and forced labor’. The report lists myriad goods - as diverse soap, sugarcane, and tin - coming from more than 45 nations, however it does not include United States.

‘There are dozens of goods [on that list] that I have seen worked on or produced with child labour in this country’, Roberto said. ‘I have long maintained that when it comes to agriculture in America is a third world country. Our standards are those of a developing or less than developing country’.

Roberto hopes that his film will continue the growing debate on what he sees as the troubling ‘culture of agriculture’ in a country that spends the lowest percentage of individual income on food in the world. While he endorses consumer-based responsibility and buying food that’s organic and from local producers, he says that’s not quite enough.

‘I have asked that people remember that they are both citizens and consumers’, Roberto said. ‘They should write to their congressman and they should support legislation that puts an end to this inequality’.

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