The most vulnerable farmworkers are the least protected

  Jose and Luis are only 10-and 11-years old, but they are already expert cherry pickers. After three summers working in the orchards with their father, they know how to pluck cherries without harming the tree bud. They know how to avoid the tractors that speed through the slender rows of trees. They know that long days in the sun equal food for their family in Yakima, Wash., a town that teems with Mexican immigrants.

"I’m sort of tired, but it’s not so bad," says Luis, with a weary grin, as he drops a handful of cherries into the white bucket strapped to his chest.

Jose and Luis shouldn’t be here. It is illegal for children under 12 to work in the fields, though it happens all the time. Thousands of children throughout the West join their parents to work in the fields.

They are part of a national workforce of 300,000 to 500,000 children in agriculture, reports the Oregonian. In addition, 7 percent of farmworkers with children 5 years old or younger bring their kids to work, according to a 2000 Government Accounting Office Report.

As the children pick fruit and vegetables, they may also harvest diseases. Pesticides, sprayed routinely on traditional farms to kill insects, cause a range of human illnesses such as cancer, brain tumors, sterility and birth defects. For children, the potential damage is magnified since they breathe and eat more than adults per unit of body weight, and their bodies and internal organs are especially sensitive as they grow up. But these illegal child workers, hidden beneath the radar screen of the law, are offered no special protection. They need it.

Five-year-old children in Mexico who were exposed to pesticides suffer lags in development. They can’t catch a ball or perform simple tasks involving memory and neuromuscular skills, according to a study by Elizabeth Guillette, an anthropologist with the University of Florida. Their drawings of people are scribbles on the page; children of the same age and of the same region who weren’t exposed to pesticides are able to draw people with legs and arms and smiling faces. Other studies conducted in the United States find that frequent exposure to pesticides is strongly associated with both childhood leukemia and brain cancer.

Despite such findings, the Environmental Protection Agency offers no protection for children.

"We can’t deny the possibility that children are working in the fields, but they’re not supposed to be there," says Kevin Keaney, a branch chief for worker protection with the EPA. "We can’t change the regulations unless the Department of Labor sets the legal age at an absurdly young age. There’s not really anything we can do about it."

It’s a Catch-22: The Department of Labor won’t acknowledge the presence of child farmworkers because that would create an appearance of condoning the situation. Farmer groups such as the Farm Bureau say they are unaware that such a problem exists within its membership.

This unwillingness to confront reality seems to have soaked through the membrane of mainstream society. In September, a coalition of 10 public- interest groups sued the EPA to lower pesticide standards to levels that protect the most vulnerable or exposed children. Few Western newspapers reported on the suit. It’s a safe bet that most Americans have no idea what goes on in the fields.

But as consumers, if we buy food picked by children like Jose or Luis, we are in part responsible for them. The good news is that there are things we can do.

Helping migrant workers harness more political clout would enable them to demand better legal protection from pesticides, say worker advocates. The majority of farmworkers are poor, undocumented Spanish-speakers; many are afraid to stick up for themselves because they can’t afford to lose their job or get deported. Hope for change could lie in immigration-policy reform.

This fall, Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, proposed legislation that would give agricultural immigrants some rights in federal court and better access to labor unions. It would also allow those who have been working in this country for over 10 years without documentation to apply for permanent status for themselves and their families.

This is immigration reform that makes sense, just as protecting children from pesticide poisoning also makes sense. This winter, as you buy fresh fruit and vegetables, consider the small hands that worked to bring them to you.

Rebecca Clarren is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She writes about rural Western issues from Portland, Oregon.

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