Last month, N.C. Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca refused to allow so much as a hearing of Senate Bill 707, all but killing it. What did the Henderson Republican find so objectionable?
The bill would ban the employment of children under age 14 in one of the deadliest occupations in America. But isnt that already illegal? Didnt child labor laws from the 1930s put an end to the industrial exploitation of kids? Not in agriculture. Not in North Carolina. Here, impoverished kids as young as 10 can be hired to work for strangers in sun-baked fields laden with toxic pesticides, doing hard labor few adults would choose to do.
We are not talking here about family farms. Senate Bill 707 like every other proposal to bring child labor standards out of the 19th century explicitly allows children to work on farms owned or operated by relatives. Unfortunately, this truth is routinely ignored or misrepresented, allowing legislators to brush off these reforms as threats to an American institution and parental rights.
There is no moral justification for child labor in any industry, but the economic justification is a wickedly powerful one. The denial of child labor, wage, housing and other legal rights to farmworkers rights enjoyed by workers in every other industry in America allows agricultural corporations to keep their labor costs at rock bottom. Growers have no control over the cost of seeds, pesticides or heavy equipment. But with the help of friendly legislators, they can hold down labor costs by taking advantage of the men, women and children who work their fields.
We understand the political realities that lawmakers face. Agribusiness carries a big stick in states like North Carolina. Fortunately, there is something the legislature can do this session to protect farmworker children from being further exploited from trafficking and sexual violence. As reported by Human Rights Watch last year, farmworking girls are subject to unwanted touching, stalking and rape. In a March 2012 Indy Week report corroborated by the nonprofit farmworker advocacy group NC Field, a 16-year-old girl tells of two young girls at one camp being offered as prostitutes to their supervisor.
Senate Bill 683, the so-called Safe Harbor Act, aims to protect victims of human trafficking and the prostitution of minors. The inclusion of simple, sensible provisions will extend this protection to children in our state who need it most.
One provision guarantees that farmworkers may receive visits during nonworking hours from church, charitable and nonprofit organizations for health care, education and other services. Another requires that the Polaris Sex Trafficking hotline be posted in migrant camps. Others require locks for doors and windows of farmworker sleeping areas and locked storage for farmworker valuables such as passports so they cannot be held to exert control.
Too many school kids are working in fields when they should be doing homework. And too many 10-, 11-, 12- and 13-year-old girls are at risk of sexual violence while helping to support their families. Our legislature is empowered to change these realities right now with bills like 707 and 683.
Melinda Wiggins is executive director of Student Action with Farmworkers, a nonprofit based in Durham.