Cleaning Lettuce and Fighting Child Labor in the US

Cleaning Lettuce and Fighting Child Labor in the US

Child Labor: A Growing Issue in the United States

At just 11 years old, Jacqueline Aguilar would get up before four in the morning to go to the fields to clean lettuce in a small town in Colorado. More than nine hours of work in the sun awaited her with just thirty minutes to eat. Now, at 20, Jacqueline has managed to leave behind her life in the fields to fight against child labor, the reality of many children in the United States, especially migrants, from their workplace in Washington DC.

Child labor violations have been increasing since 2015, after years of decline, according to data from the United States Department of Labor. The truth is that, more and more, states are introducing and promulgating laws to weaken the regulations that limit the work of minors, something that further threatens the right of children to be just that, children.

An Alarming Increase in Violations

In fact, a federal investigation this year found that more than 100 minors were illegally employed in dangerous jobs, although it came to light due to the simple fact that one of the children suffered chemical burns from cleaning products, Reid Maki, the director of Child Labor Advocacy, where Jacqueline Aguilar also works, told EFE. Additionally, more than 300 minors were recently discovered working at 3 McDonald’s franchises, including two 10-year-old boys.

Many child labor advocates attribute this increase to a “lack of labor,” something that should not be supplied with adolescent workers, Maki claims. He points out that a large part of these children are migrants, since in the last four years “there has been a huge increase in the number of unaccompanied minors arriving in the United States.” These children are in conditions that make them especially vulnerable, such as their possible debt to the “coyotes” who help them enter the country or their lack of economic resources.

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The Experience of Jacqueline Aguilar

Jacqueline’s parents emigrated from Mexico after having her older sister. In Center, a small town in Colorado, she and her sisters walked to the fields at dawn to work. From the ages of 11 to 15, Jacqueline cleaned lettuce for more than 9-hour shifts without any breaks, along with other children.

“There came a time when my parents, who worked in agriculture, could no longer buy me clothes. They told me: ‘We don’t have money to buy you shoes,'” explains Jacqueline speaking in Spanish to EFE about how she was forced to start working at the age of 11.

Jacqueline remembers with integrity that it was especially difficult to return to the countryside in her last year of high school, at age 17, after quitting her job at 15 and after her father was diagnosed with cancer. The young woman affirms that “many people cut their fingers” and “things fell on their feet”, and the workers, having no health insurance, did not go to the hospital. “As a child, I should not be there. It is a very dangerous job and it can even cost you your life,” says the student, who recalls how throughout that time she endured very adverse weather conditions. “One day it was snowing heavily and everyone wanted to go home. I remember they told us, ‘No, you can’t leave until the end of the day,'” she adds.

The Legal Loopholes and the Impact

Under federal child labor regulations, children must be 14 years old to occupy a job of no more than three hours on school days and eight hours on non-school days, except in some cases such as agriculture. Legal loopholes allow minors to legally work an unlimited number of hours at age 12, as long as they do not miss school, Maki points out. Agriculture, in addition to meat processing plants, is one of the sectors where more child labor violations occur. In fact, more minors die in agriculture than in any other industry, as stated in a 2018 report by the US government. Maki’s organization estimates that nearly 300,000 minors would be employed on farms in the country. Today, there are 12-year-olds working in tobacco fields legally, even though they must be 21 to buy it.

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In the past 2 years, at least 14 states have introduced or passed laws that nullify protections against child labor. This is the case of Arkansas, where verification of the child’s age or parental authorization is no longer required. Or Iowa, where a new law, approved by the state Congress and awaiting the signature of the Republican governor, would allow children to work longer hours and in dangerous jobs, which directly contradicts federal law.

Maki denounces that “adolescents could be condemned to generational poverty,” something that Jacqueline agrees with, who confesses that some minors choose to continue working and drop out of school. Meanwhile, Jacqueline continues to see children who suffer abuse in the fields of her village every summer.

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