New Calls for Change in Child Labor Laws

There are now calls for change in United States labor policy following an NBC Bay Area investigation that uncovered children working in the fields of America.
NBC Bay Area investigative reporter Stephen Stock unveiled the secret world where children as young as eight years old pick fresh fruits and vegetables that end up on our table.

And it's all happening, not in some foreign country, but in the United States from North Carolina to California.

[Click here for behind-the-scenes photos of the reporting and production of this investigative series.] 

Now San Francisco Bay Area Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey is speaking out saying she wants that to stop.

Representative Woolsey said she was especially bothered by a move recently in Congress to prevent any change when it comes to child labor in our fields.

Just last week the House voted to block changes the current law that dates back to the 1930’s.

Because the law hasn't changed it was relatively easy to find dozens of children working the fields here.

All you have to do is find the right fields and look closely through the trees.

Look at exactly who is up on the ladder picking nectarines.

Or who is down under the grape leaves thinning the vines of the fresh fruit that ends up on your table or as raisins.

Their faces are often hidden much like their role in picking the food we eat.

They are children working in the fields of America.

The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit found them working on large mass production farms throughout California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys.

The Unit talked with two dozen of them all over the 20,000 square miles that make up California’s Central Valley.

 “It’s hard,” said one 15 year-old.

“It cut my hands,” said another teen who started working when she was eleven.

“It’s difficult I couldn’t take it,” said a 13 year-old.

The peaches were sticky,” said a 12 year-old worker.

 Each of the children shared a different story.

 But again and again the common theme of each story was that the children started working full time as young as twelve, eleven, ten, even eight years old.

Our findings incensed Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey.

 “We’re talking about corporate farms where they just take advantage of these young kids,” said Representative Woolsey, a Democrat who represents Marin and Sonoma Counties.

 Woolsey said the federal government has dropped the ball on regulating child labor when it comes to agriculture.

 “It’s so frustrating,” said Woolsey. “This is the 21st century and we’re still that far behind in the United States of America in taking care of children who are picking our fruits and vegetables.”

 Congresswoman Woolsey reserves special criticism for members of her own political party, Democrats, whom she says lack the courage to make change.

 “(There are) no concerns (in Washington) how young they are eight, ten years old. It’s criminal,”

Woolsey said. “And it’s the United States of America, the wealthiest nation on our planet and it’s the 21st Century. Put all that together and we ought to be a pretty embarrassed nation.”

 Critics of current US labor law governing children in agriculture agree with the Congresswoman.

 “You will not see a 12 year mining or doing construction and frankly people would be very upset to see something like that,” said Norma Flores Lopez, director of the Children in the Fields Campaign for the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs.

 “There is a set of rules that covers children working in every other industry and then there is a separate set of rules for kids working in agriculture,” said Flores Lopez.

 But others say the law is just fine as it is.

 “The current regulations as they are I think are good,” said grower Pete Aiello. Aiello co-owns and is general manager Uesugi Farms in Gilroy.

 “I think that the laws are sound I think it’s okay for kids that young to be working,” Aiello said.

 Aiello says current labor law is adequate to protect children working in agriculture as long as the law is enforced.

 “If there are some operations that are not abiding by the laws they need to be punished and they need to be brought to justice,” Aiello said. “Because it is those few operations out there that make the rest of us good operations look bad.”

 Many in Congress agree with Aiello. Just last week, the House of Representatives passed--by a voice vote—legislation that would prevent the Department of Labor from passing new rules to restrict children from working on large farms.

 Only one representative spoke out on the floor of the US House of Representatives against this legislation: Representative Woolsey.

 “That’s what takes your breath away,” Congresswoman Woolsey told NBC Bay Area. “It’s like we judge other countries and we are blind to what our own country is doing and how we won’t protect our own children. And it is not acceptable.”

  Right now, under current US labor law it is illegal for a 12 year-old to work in an air conditioned office building or to bag groceries or serve fast food.

 But it is not illegal for those same children to work a 10 hour day in 106 degree heat in the fields putting food on our tables.

 And it’s not just here in California. We found children working in even more questionable circumstances across the country.

Here is more from our special series:


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