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Tag: "labor"

You Kids Get Off My Lawn: Old Activist Edition

[ 90 ] June 14, 2014 |

Amy Merrick wrote a piece in The New Yorker about the terrible conditions in the sweatshops that make clothing for Forever 21, a department store focusing on low cost clothing for college-aged women. She wonders why the kids aren’t protesting Forever 21, suggesting the decline in labor unions and their own economic instability as reasons. I’ll get back to this in a minute because it’s problematic, but it then led to a more unfortunate Lindy West piece entitled “Why Don’t College Students Give a Shit About Sweatshops Anymore” that does little but compare today’s students unfavorably to her own activism in college.

But somehow, in the late ’90s, the anti-sweatshop movement managed to get a real brand going. “Not wearing clothes made by slave labor” was the “normcore” of 1999.

I wasn’t even a particularly consistent or well-informed young revolutionary, but for years I had a kneejerk aversion to anything too cheap to be true. Someone was paying a price for those clothes, somewhere. So I thrifted a lot, I avoided the big-name no-nos like GAP and Old Navy and Nike and Walmart, and I justified my few mainstream purchases with a combination of selective ignorance (I don’t know for sure that a child made these $30 jeans) and shruggy pragmatism (I can’t just not wear pants).

It was literally the least I could do; given my level of privilege, it was almost nothing at all. I was lucky to be able to choose where I shopped (plus, it wasn’t like GAP made clothes in my size anyway). I didn’t have a family to support or significant consequences if I exceeded my budget.

But my point is that I’m impressed, in retrospect, by how effective the messaging was in that moment. “Pay attention to where your clothes come from” somehow got through to me and every other dumb kid I knew. And, according to labor activists in 2014, that’s no longer the case.

These articles are not helpful for a number of reasons. First, they are another edition of “Why Don’t You Kids Fight the Power in the Exact Same Way I Did in College,” a line of lecturing pioneering by ex-60s radicals at least by the 1980s and something that many of you have probably run into at some point.

This reeks of romanticizing the past actions through a carefully remembered history that excludes the second problem with these articles. In 1999, there were some college aged students that cared about sweatshop labor. The majority of college students did not care. In 2014, there are some college aged students that care about sweatshop labor. The majority of college students do not care. Now, there were probably a few more students caring in 1999, but not only are college students working today on other issues that students weren’t fifteen years ago, but there are lots of students still fighting sweatshop labor. If anything, this has increased in the past year since the Rana Plaza collapse and sweatshop conditions have again returned to the nation’s attention. Plus let’s not forget why students turned away from this as a key issue–9/11 and the Iraq War turned their attention to American imperialism. Can’t just handwave this away. Students didn’t stop caring about sweatshops. They started caring about a horrible war.

Again, the third problem here, particularly with West’s piece (at least Merrick mentions it), is that there are actually a lot of great stuff going on in the anti-sweatshop movement. United Students Against Sweatshops is a vibrant organization with activists on a lot of campuses doing great work. I talked a bit about actions at USC this spring and other campuses are involved in a wide range of activities against sweatshop labor and exploitation. Sure, there should be more students involved–but it was the same in 1999.

The fourth problem here is that some of the strategies of 1999 West talks about favorably actually aren’t helpful. Telling people to buy second-hand clothing so they don’t support sweatshops does absolutely nothing to help workers. Plus it’s not scalable. Bangladeshi sweatshop labor activist Kalpona Akter has urged developed world activists not to boycott these factories because it just hurts the workers who need jobs. Cheap and easy feel-good activism does not solve problems, nor build solidarity with those fighting for a better life for themselves.

The fifth problem, and West at least nods at this, is that why are we demanding college students go protest for us? Do it yourself! We (including myself) can all do more to fight the terrible labor conditions in the products that we consume. A woman named Liz Parker started her own protest in front of the British chain Matalan because it wouldn’t sign onto a plant to compensate the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse. Everyone can do these things. Quit blaming college kids and go start your own protest.

Sixth, and most important for those who are serious about thinking about how to create actual change as opposed to vague protests, is that the articles ignore why students focused on the creation of apparel for their own institutions and not random department stores–because they have leverage to do so. As students, college administrators have to at least pretend to listen to them and potentially respond. The students have a clear and targeted objective–getting their schools to agree to responsible sourcing. The implementation is always tricky, but the point is that it’s an achievable, clearly defined goal with an endpoint and a group of people in power who have to be at least somewhat accountable to them. It’s a strategic choice that makes sense.

If you want to go protest Forever 21, print off some flyers, stand in front of their stores, and pass them out until you get escorted off the premises. Call the media and let them know what you are going to do. Have a friend take pictures and put them on Facebook and Twitter. Don’t tell college students to do it. Do it yourself.

Small Victories

[ 13 ] June 12, 2014 |

This is sort of a big deal:

Target is introducing a potentially precedent-setting policy imposing new rules on companies it hires to clean its stores in the Twin Cities, the retail giant’s hometown. It’s a step forward for union-backed efforts to force major corporations to raise standards for workers they don’t directly employ.

According to a Target (TGT) memo that the labor group Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha provided to Businessweek, Target’s Twin Cities janitorial vendors will be required not only to comply with federal and Minnesota labor laws but also to give workers the option of at least one day off each week; establish safety committees and let employees choose half the members; and invite unions to meet at least once a year with management.

Most significantly, the document instructs each vendor—unless released from the obligation at Target’s discretion—to reach deals with labor groups that want to represent their workers. According to the memo, such deals should dictate “terms and conditions of employment” (making life easier for workers) but they must prohibit “economic interference with Target’s operations” by labor groups (making life easier for management).

In other words, Target—whose U.S. store workforce is 100 percent union free—is telling companies that want to clean its Twin Cities buildings to make nice with unions.

We shouldn’t overplay this–Target is not becoming a union shop overnight and it’s a very limited agreement where Target still has most of the power. But the precedent matters. Target has been forced to retreat in an era when we rarely see corporations do anything but crush organized labor.

The Decline of Meatpacking Wages

[ 115 ] June 10, 2014 |

This is a great graph on the decline of meatpacking wages compared to industrial work as a whole. All industrial work has stagnate for 35 years (real wage decline of 1.5% since 1979). Meatpacking–real wage decline by a mere 28.3%.

How did this happen?

Meatpacking has a somewhat unique position in the American economy. Like many other industries, it found capital mobility a great way to cut wages and increase profits. It discovered this early on, busting unions by the 1960s through transition production out of the cities and into small Midwestern towns. But unlike other industries like textiles, the vast majority of the work has remained in the United States. Over 99 percent of our chickens, 92 percent of beef, and 97 percent of pork are produced domestically. This means it has basically found ways to create as exploitative conditions as possible within the U.S. The history of union-busting (which I discussed in detail here) in the meat industry (a phenomenon in fact closely related to the exploitation of truckers since trucking companies played a leading role in this new economy) led to plummeting wages, making it a dangerous and low-paid job in 2014.

Wal-Mart Trucking Abuses Kill

[ 169 ] June 10, 2014 |

The man who fell asleep at the wheel of his truck and rammed the back of Tracy Morgan’s limousine of course worked for Wal-Mart and had not slept for 24 hours.

This is not surprising at all. Wal-Mart has long been accused of pushing truckers to the limit. All the companies push drivers to the limit for profit, endangering not only the drivers but also everyday drivers on the road.

Of course, Republicans think that drivers falling asleep at the wheel is OK:

Days before Morgan’s accident thrust trucking safety into the news, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved legislation that would undo rules that only went into effect last year that mandated certain rest periods for truck drivers. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) added an amendment to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill that would suspend a regulation that truck drivers rest for 34 consecutive hours, including two nights from 1:00 AM to 5:00 AM, before driving again.

“With one amendment, we’re doing away with rules we worked years to develop,” Izer said Monday.

Another reminder that “moderate Republicans” are only moderate on social policy; on labor issues they are as bad as any Tea Partier.

Slave Labor in the Thai Fisheries

[ 32 ] June 10, 2014 |

If you buy southeast Asian seafood, which includes most of the shrimp in the frozen section of your grocery store, you are buying a product produced with slave labor.

A six-month investigation has established that large numbers of men bought and sold like animals and held against their will on fishing boats off Thailand are integral to the production of prawns (commonly called shrimp in the US) sold in leading supermarkets around the world, including the top four global retailers: Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco.

The investigation found that the world’s largest prawn farmer, the Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, buys fishmeal, which it feeds to its farmed prawns, from some suppliers that own, operate or buy from fishing boats manned with slaves.

Men who have managed to escape from boats supplying CP Foods and other companies like it told the Guardian of horrific conditions, including 20-hour shifts, regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings. Some were at sea for years; some were regularly offered methamphetamines to keep them going. Some had seen fellow slaves murdered in front of them.

Fifteen migrant workers from Burma and Cambodia also told how they had been enslaved. They said they had paid brokers to help them find work in Thailand in factories or on building sites. But they had been sold instead to boat captains, sometimes for as little as £250.

“I thought I was going to die,” said Vuthy, a former monk from Cambodia who was sold from captain to captain. “They kept me chained up, they didn’t care about me or give me any food … They sold us like animals, but we are not animals – we are human beings.”

Another trafficking victim said he had seen as many as 20 fellow slaves killed in front of him, one of whom was tied, limb by limb, to the bows of four boats and pulled apart at sea.

For a more complete view of labor exploitation in the Thai shrimp industry, see this report from the Environmental Justice Foundation (PDF).

Of course, Wal-Mart and the other companies don’t care. They are happy to bring in fish sourced with slave labor. In fact, its own fish contractors in the U.S. have followed this model as closely as possible.

Guestworkers as Strikebreakers

[ 25 ] June 5, 2014 |

While I am open to an argument that part of an immigration reform package should include a guestworker program, I am extraordinarily skeptical. Why? Because guestworker programs have ALWAYS been used to bust strikes. They give employers even greater leverage over their workers than trucking in strikebreakers from a different part of the country because they have no right to stay and thus no investment in not crossing the picket lines or showing solidarity with the workers, a solidarity they may well feel but what choice do they have? Such was the very plan for Sakuma Farms in Washington, even under the limited guestworker program already in existence:

This year Sakuma Farms applied for H-2A work visas for 438 workers it intends to bring from Mexico to work during the harvest, from June 18 to October 15. Afterward, they would have to go back to Mexico. Sakuma, one of the largest berry growers in Washington state, hires about 500 workers each picking season. If it recruits 438 of them in Mexico, there will not be enough work for those like Ventura, who have been laboring in its fields every year…

What is happening to Rosario Ventura… is a window into a possible future for farm workers. For workers already here, that future includes lost jobs. For growers, the same future holds government-administered programs giving them a source of temporary workers at close to minimum wage, who go back to Mexico when the work is done…

Workers question the company’s eligibility to recruit H-2A workers. [The Department of Labor] Fact Sheet #26 says clearly: “Employers must also assure that there is no strike or lockout in the course of a labor dispute at the worksite.” Last year Ventura, Galicia and 250 workers went on strike at Sakuma Farms several times…

In the course of the work stoppages workers formed an independent association, Familias Unidas por la Justicia—Families United for Justice…

Last year Familias Unidas por la Justicia wanted an improvement in both hourly wages and the piece rate—a $14 hourly guarantee, and a minimum price of $6 for a fifteen-pound box of blueberries. The company would not pay more than $4 a box, and a $12 per hour guarantee, saying that the higher demand would raise its labor costs too much.

When the company was questioned about why it needed H-2A workers, it said a labor shortage had led to the loss of blackberries and strawberries—it couldn’t find enough workers to pick them. But the farm was also unwilling to raise its wages to attract additional pickers.

Sakura has since withdrawn their application, possibly because of bad publicity, more likely because it was going to be rejected. But a bigger guestworker program would only undermine organizing. Immigrant labor must have the opportunity to stay in the country to create a fair playing field for them and for the workers already here.

The Power of American Governments to Improve Labor Conditions Around the World

[ 9 ] June 2, 2014 |

If it wants to, American governments can play an enormous role in improving labor conditions overseas. The federal government could do all sorts of things to regulate the conditions of what comes into this country. At the very least, it could demand the products it purchases itself (mostly for the military) are ethically sourced. Unfortunately it does not.

Even on the local level, government can make a difference. Take Madison:

Last month, to commemorate the anniversary of the deadly Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, the city of Madison, Wisconsin, launched a contracting policy that commits the city’s vendors to promote fair labor standards. The city’s new “sweatfree” contract guidelines aim to eradicate labor abuse from its international supply chains for the production of government uniforms, including the apparel worn by firefighters and other agency personnel. The guidelines build on the city’s existing sweat-free procurement policies, with disclosure and monitoring mechanisms that aim to “[raise] the bar for human rights due diligence in government contracting” by providing a nationwide model, according to the advocacy network Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium (SPC). Similar to living-wage policies for workers on government contracts—which help raise pay scales for low-income workers across the community—the sweat-free contract model for government purchasing can promote standards for more ethical manufacturing across the global apparel market. Madison’s effort builds on model policies developed by advocates and governments of various cities and states through the SPC, which includes Austin, Berkeley and Maine.

The Madison contract rules cover basic labor protections that reflect International Labour Organization standards. Vendors will be required to disclose detailed information on the entire supply chain, allowing city authorities to oversee factories’ compliance with national rules on wages and benefits, child labor, employment discrimination and maternity leave, fire and building safety codes, and overtime and maternity leave rules. Vendors will be monitored by a Contract Review Panel that includes representatives of the city and international labor experts. And if contractors do not have full disclosure for all their suppliers initially, they must increase disclosure levels annually over the duration of the contract.

Suppliers will also be screened on whether they provide “worker education” and “a grievance process” to help them advocate for their rights at work. There is a special focus on “prevention measures to address health and safety conditions in high-risk areas such as Bangladesh and Pakistan”—two countries associated with “deathtrap” factories that have claimed the lives of hundreds of workers in recent years. The language mirrors provisions of the Bangladesh Accord, an industry-based program for factory health and safety that now has now enrolled about about 170 brands and retailers worldwide.

Moreover, the firms themselves have to pay for the system. This is a very good thing and a good precedent for those fighting for international labor rights.

UAW Effort in Alabama Collapsing

[ 66 ] June 1, 2014 |

This is a depressing story.

Pro-union forces in the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama are asking the United Auto Workers to stop organizing there because the UAW won’t bring the election up to a vote.

Garner and Jim Spitzley, another longtime employee, have been key spokesmen for pro-union employees, and they have worked closely with the UAW on the campaign.

But they have grown increasingly frustrated with the UAW’s failure to file for an election.

At one point, the men say, the campaign had enough union authorization cards to legally file for an election, as more than 30 percent of the plant’s hourly production and maintenance workers had signed one.

But the UAW was pushing for a much higher percentage, 65 percent, because it wanted a sure win, they said.

“It’s all about the image with the UAW, and it’s not about the workers,” Spitzley said.

But before you say that the UAW is wrong here, understand that it is not wrong. The UAW knows it can’t bring this before an election because it will go down to a resounding defeat. 65 percent is a pretty standard number in modern elections because a lot of those votes will be peeled away in the intimidation campaign to come from the company.

Yet the Alabama unionists distancing themselves from the UAW is a sign of just how low the prestige of the union has become since the Chattanooga loss. I have no idea what the Alabama workers are going to do to replace the UAW. Some want the Machinists to come in but that would violate AFL-CIO jurisdiction rules, which may not be the best thing in the world sometimes, but you really don’t want unions raiding each other either. So probably nothing, maybe some kind of independent union, but the problem is that they aren’t going to win a vote either way. Maybe the best thing is to start an employees’ group that acts like a union, recruit members over the next few years, and build up that way. But right now, this is just ugly for anyone who cares about American unionization.

Coal Company Lies

[ 61 ] May 30, 2014 |

Coal companies are openly cheating the system that monitor for coal dust that leads to black lung, misleading Mine Safety and Health Administration monitoring programs. There are so few good jobs in West Virginia and rural Kentucky that they can easily intimidate most employees into complaining since what else are you going to do that makes you $50,000 without a college degree. But the cost of this is workers dying in a truly horrible manner.

The Broken Temp Worker System

[ 33 ] May 29, 2014 |

The explosion in temp work has happened because employers see it as a profitable way to exploit labor, getting rid of troublemakers, avoiding legal responsibility, and keeping wages and benefits to a minimum. This is an excellent story on temp workers in California lettuce fields–some of which having worked there for a mere 10 years:

Thanks to this arrangement the two-thirds of Taylor Farms’ 900 Tracy workers who work for subcontractors are considered temporary workers – even though some have worked at Taylor plants for 10 years. They can be fired at the drop of a foreman’s hat for questioning an instruction or calling in sick.

Taylor Farms’ reliance on temporary, low-wage workers is part of a management revolution that has radically changed the fundamental expectation that hard work will be rewarded with fair compensation. Whether this outsourcing trend continues will determine how unstable the national workplace becomes — and how difficult entry into the middle class will be for American workers.

Capital & Main learned that in addition to procuring workers for Taylor Farms, Mendoza, which also supplies temp field labor, sells its own $7 boxed lunches to its field hands and even rents cash-only apartments to its mostly undocumented workers. Teamster representatives say that Mendoza even supplied hecklers who tried to crash Roger Hernandez’s meeting with Taylor Farms workers.

“I would rate Abel Mendoza, SlingShot and Taylor Farms as the most abusive employers I’ve encountered in my 20 years of doing this work,” says Doug Bloch, the political director of Teamsters Joint Council 7, which has been leading an organizing effort in Tracy. “There’s always a need for temporary labor in any agricultural industry, but at Taylor Farms you have people who have been working five years or 10 years or longer as a ‘temp.’ There is nothing temporary about their employment whatsoever.”

A 2012 University of California, Berkeley Labor Center study concluded that temporary workers in California are twice as likely as non-temps to live in poverty, face lower wages and less job security. They are also twice as likely to receive food stamps and be on Medi-Cal as other employees. For temporary workers employed in manual occupations, particularly, it may also mean being subject to unsafe working conditions and other abuses as host companies and temp agencies each blame the other for health and safety violations.

“When somebody files a workers comp claim, nobody wants to take responsibility for it,” says the Teamsters’ Bloch. “The insurer gets bounced back and forth like a pinball between Taylor Farms and Abel Mendoza. The same thing happens when workers file claims with the Labor Commissioner. Everybody’s pointing their finger and saying, ‘I’m not the employer, it’s the other guy.’”

California Assemblyman Roger Hernandez has introduced a bill making companies responsible for what happens to workers when they use labor contractors. Such an idea needs to become central to labor activism worldwide and should be applied through the entirety of supply chains, making Wal-Mart legally responsible for what happens to workers in the sweatshop where they toil because the company demands huge shipments of product for very low prices.

This Day in Labor History: May 29, 1943

[ 82 ] May 29, 2014 |

On May 29, 1943, Norman Rockwell published a cover in the Saturday Evening Post of a woman working an industrial job. This cover represented the millions of women entering the workforce during World War II to build the material needed to defeat the Axis. This image was part of a larger cultural phenomena referring to these women workers as Rosie the Riveter. Rosie the Riveter may not have been a real woman, but she does open an entry way to talk about a key point in American labor history: women and work in World War II.

RosieTheRiveter

Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter cover

When the United States entered World War II in late 1941, it created an instant labor shortage. With immigration not a possibility except from Mexico, it opened up unprecedented economic opportunities for both women and minorities. The number of women working increased from 12 to 20 million. Before the war, most working women labored in poorly paid service jobs, clerical work, or sales positions. When they did work in manufacturing, it was in the ever exploitative apparel industry, mostly in the South and still a bit in New England. During the war, their labor became much more valuable. The number of women in manufacturing grew by 141 percent and in industries making material for war skyrocketed by 463 percent. Women working in domestic service declined by 20 percent.

Just because women were needed of course didn’t mean that employers had any intention of paying them the same as men, a policy which unfortunately was acceptable to too many unions as well. Men working in a defense production factory averaged $54.65 per week with women receiving an average of only $31.50. While women did join the big industrial unions to work in these factories, because of seniority provisions, they were at the bottom, setting them up to be the first fired after the war. Some contracts for women even stipulated that women would only hold the job until the war’s conclusion. Still, the wages were vastly higher than before the war and women were able to partake of greater economic benefits than any time in U.S. history.

8d39781r

Women welders, Landers, Frary, and Clark Plant, New Britain, Connecticut

The majority of women entering the workforce were older. 60 percent of the women were over the age of 35 and most of them did not have young children. Generally, younger women with small children did not work although of course there were lots of exceptions. Few employers provided childcare and the government did not recruit these women. One exception to this was at the Kaiser shipyards on the west coast, which had 24-hour child care and therefore employed a lot more young women.

The term Rosie the Riveter first appeared in a 1942 song that became a hit for Kay Kyser. A woman named Rosalind Walter was the inspiration for the song. Walter was an elite woman who took a job in an aircraft factory before entering philanthropy after the war. The always-influential Rockwell popularized the image even more with his cover. Rockwell based his woman on a phone operator he knew in Arlington, Vermont named Mary Doyle Keefe, who he then apologized to for making her look so burly. The image then toured the country as a fundraising drive for war bonds.

The popular image of Rosie the Riveter at the time was associated with a Kentucky woman named Rose Will Monroe who moved to Michigan during World War II and worked as a riveter building bombers in a Ypislanti factory. Monroe was asked to be in a promotional film about the women workers and received some short-lived fame that way.

The most famous Rosie image, the “We Can Do It” poster in fact was not designed for the campaign at all. Westinghouse hired a Pittsburgh graphic designer named J. Howard Miller to design an image of a woman worker for its War Production Coordinating Committee. It is believed Miller based his image on a photo of a woman named Geraldine Hoff, who worked as a metal-stamping machine operator in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was only shown to Westinghouse workers as part of a good morale, corporate-values drive (read, anti-union drive) for 2 weeks in February 1943 and was then forgotten. In fact, the poster did not become widely associated with Rosie the Riveter until the 1980s.

So to repeat, the image you think of when you think of Rosie the Riveter was an image intended to discourage women from joining unions. The “We” in “We Can Do It” is Westinghouse workers following the leadership of Westinghouse management. Of course, there’s certainly nothing wrong with co-opting right-wing materials for our purposes; certainly conservatives do this all time to images and ideas of the left.

We_Can_Do_It!

Westinghouse-commissioned corporate propaganda, later erroneously associated with Rosie the Riveter

The war meant a lot of hard work. But wartime work could mean a lot of fun too, perhaps too much for some. Senator Prentiss Brown (D-MI), member of the Army Ordinance Committee, spoke out about fun getting in the way of war production:

The pumps were found to be in perfect condition and no reason could found for their failure until a pair of ladies panties were taken from the suction pipe. These were undoubtedly discarded during the construction of the vessel in a moment of thoughtlessness and left lying in the tank, later finding their way into the pipeline…In order that all may cooperate one hundred percent in the war effort and the total destruction the Axis Powers, it is respectfully requested that lady workers keep their pants on during working hours for the duration.

Many women wanted to continue working after the war (one poll put the number at about 75%), but the postwar economy would be nothing if not patriarchal. Nearly all the women working in factories lost their jobs by the end of 1946. Yet despite overwhelming popular support for women staying at home at letting men working in a single-family economy during the 1950s, women soon entered the workforce at rates surpassing that of World War II. In one poll, 86% of Americans said that married women should not work if jobs were scarce and a husband could support her. Yet by 1952, 2 million more women were working than in 1945. But instead of well-paying industrial jobs, they were effectively filling service positions in the booming postwar economy, going back into sales, office work, flight attendants, and domestic service. The fight for women to become an accepted part of the industrial workforce would not be fully engaged again until the 1970s.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton created the Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park at the site of a former Kaiser shipyard in Richmond, California, giving the National Park Service a site to interpret this history. I haven’t visited unfortunately.

The original Rockwell painting was sold in 2002 for $4.9 million and now resides in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Today, the image of Rosie the Riveter has become a feminist icon, despite the facts of its origins which are almost totally unknown.

This is the 108th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Child Labor on Tobacco Farms

[ 18 ] May 26, 2014 |

Human Rights Watch just released a powerful new report on the abuse of child labor on American tobacco farms. Children as young as the age of 7 are working on these farms, which are structured by individual farmers selling tobacco to the big companies like Philip Morris. While the tobacco companies do have general standards for the tobacco they buy, there’s no evidence they spend any time ensuring the farmers are living up to these standards. Not only are the children working 10-12 hours, mostly during the summer harvesting season but sometimes they aren’t going to school, but they are laboring in unsafe conditions. Sharp tools, machines, and rickety barns to dry to tobacco all make work unsafe for everyone, but especially children. Three-quarters of the children interviewed suffered symptoms of Green Tobacco Sickness, which is basically tobacco poisoning from handling the plants for long periods. These symptoms include dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Water, sanitary facilities, and shade are far too rare and southern summers are very hot and humid. Pesticide exposure is also a major problem on these farms.

As is typical of all agriculture in the United States, labor law is lagging. The failures of the Fair Labor Standards Act to apply to agriculture still leads to inequities and exploitation, although certainly not all of that falls on the people involved in the initial legislation since there has been 76 years to amend it. The FLSA does prohibit “hazardous” agricultural work for children under 16, but no labor on tobacco farms is classified that way. In 2011, the Department of Labor did propose updated hazardous work lists on the farms that would have taken children out of most tobacco work but an angry response from agricultural interests convinced the agency to withdraw the rule changes.

The states could do something. But not these states. Kentucky and Tennessee’s child labor law explicitly exclude agriculture and Virginia just follows federal guidelines. North Carolina lacks any child labor law at all. State laws on wages and hours do not apply to agricultural workers in any of these states.

Read the whole report for a lot of quotes from the interviews with the children.

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