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Children still among country's farm laborers

September 02, 2001|By LAURA MITCHELL, Staff Writer

Labor Day was born of the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors, and of our children.

The holiday was established by Congress in 1894 to celebrate working people. Some of those workers were, and still are, children.

Federal law protects children from most forms of child labor but the agriculture and entertainment industries are exempt, said Darlene Atkins, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition of Washington, D.C.

"There are 100,000 kids injured in the U.S. in farm work every year," Atkins said.

States also have their own laws protecting children. California protects children from working late at night, but a 16- or 17-year-old is allowed to work up to 48 hours a week, even during a school week, Atkins said.

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According to a year 2000 survey by the Child Labor Coalition, the minimum age for employment in California is 16, but for agriculture, it's 12 or even lower if a child is working on a family farm.

Atkins added California is one of the better states in terms of quality of laws and enforcement.

But there are children working in the U.S. outside the law.

"In the Coachella Valley we still have a lot of children working in the field," said Gustavo Aguirre, director of the United Farm Workers offices in Coachella and Calexico. "By children, I mean teen-agers from 14 to 17 years old. I have not really seen them younger than that.

"Most workers don't have papers. They're not here legally," Aguirre said. "If you check the company files, you can't find any information on them. But if you go to the fields, you'll see them. I just saw some yesterday."

Most young children work during the harvest season, mostly with grapes and dates, depending on the industry, Aguirre said. Of the workers he sees on a regular basis, children are no more than 10 percent.

"If farm-working children get injured, the company takes them to the doctor and pays out of pocket," Aguirre said. "They do that normally with young people because employers know they are breaking the law. They do that to cover it up."

The Imperial Valley does not have a lot of children working in the fields because hard fines have deterred employers, said Rosa Corona of the UFW Calexico office.

But, she added, in the north it's still a problem.

Aguirre said, "In Mexico where I come from there is not a law that regulates age. Factories have more regulations, but in the fields, it is normal to see young people working to help their parents. You will see children 10 and 11 years old working in the fields."

Aguirre said the UFW wants to be sure no children are working with the companies with which it contracts.

"Children have to stay in school to learn and get jobs that are better than working in the fields," Aguirre said.

Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 337-3452 or la_mitchel1@yahoo.com.

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