When ABC broadcast an exposé on child labor in agriculture and specifically focused on the Adkin Blue Ribbon Packing Company, the reaction was both predictable and inevitable. It was certainly no surprise to us. In a piece published over two years ago in Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, titled Wages And Social Responsibility, we warned that interest in sustainability and social responsibility will inevitably circle back to labor and working conditions in the fields, both in the US and developing countries.
To deal with the exposé, several things happened quickly:
The United Fresh Produce Association sent out a letter to its members, basically saying that everyone has to redouble their efforts to make sure there is no illegal child labor in their operations:
October 30, 2009
To All United Fresh Produce Association Members:
The examples of illegal child labor in farm harvesting reported today by ABC News should be alarming to us all. While I am confident that these reports show an unfortunate exception compared with the real picture on fruit and vegetable farms across the country, we need to be clear that illegal child labor in our fields is totally unacceptable and must be prevented 100% of the time.
My first instinct upon seeing the ABC report was to say that these instances do not represent the commitment demonstrated every day by thousands of growers across the United States. It’s important that we are transparent in our operations, and make sure that ABC and, most importantly, our consumers recognize that these conditions are not widespread in our industry.
Yet simply saying so without taking further steps would be inadequate. I am asking each of you today to redouble your efforts to ensure that no young children are ever working illegally on our farms. I know you all have policies against illegal child labor, but it is our responsibility to make sure policies don’t just sit in a binder somewhere but are being enforced every day. It is our responsibility to meet with farm managers and field supervisors to reinforce the critical importance of these policies. It is our responsibility to teach these rules to all workers who might not understand the importance of keeping children in school and out of harvest fields. It is our responsibility to ensure total compliance with the law.
I know that the vast majority of you are already following these steps. But this is a powerful reminder to ensure that your own operation can live up to the scrutiny and expectations that consumers have of our industry, and the law requires.
I thank you for your commitment to providing American consumers with healthy, great-tasting fruits and vegetables grown and harvested in the most responsible manner.
United Fresh Produce Association
After the buying organizations identified in the ABC Report — Wal-Mart, Kroger and Meijer — announced they were suspending purchases from the farm pending further investigation, news outlets published many pieces saying things like, Blueberry Grower Shunned Over Child Labor Charges. All these buying organizations, of course, wanted to distance themselves from this illegal activity:
Wal-Mart and two other top retailers said Friday they are suspending business with a large southwestern Michigan blueberry grower after investigators found children as young as 6 working in the grower’s fields.
Wal-Mart, Kroger and Meijer said pending further information, they have stopped buying products from Adkin Blue Ribbon Blueberry Co. near South Haven, about 85 miles northeast of Chicago.
And the U.S. Department of Labor announced that it was imposing fines on Adkin and others:
Two blueberry growers, Jawor Brothers in Ravenna and Adkin Blue Ribbon Packing Co. in South Haven, have been fined a total of $2,584 for child labor violations.
The fines are the result of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor, which found children younger than 12, including a 6-year-old in one case, working in the fields.
Tony Marr, general manager for Adkin Blue Ribbon, said the company has strict policies on allowing children in the field. It is written in English and Spanish and employees must sign it before they start work.
“We allow no children under 12 in our field,” he said. “A couple of kids were out there hanging out with their parents. It’s something we’re looking into and reviewing to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Poor housing conditions also resulted in fines totaling $33,550 for seven fruit and vegetable growers, including another $4,600 fine for Adkin Blue Ribbon.
Marr said they were surprised by the federal violations because the company meets all state standards.
“What we’re finding out is their standards are different from the state,” he said.
He said some outdoor bathrooms were too close to the living units, and they didn’t have enough shower heads.
“Everything at the labor camp was corrected within three days of them pointing it out to us,” he said.
There was hardly another way to handle it. The use of farm labor under age 14 is typically illegal.
Still, it is worth a moment to think about the practical effects of this law and of everyone’s reaction to the exposé:
1. It is important to note that the investigation, though broadcast now, was done during the summer when school was out. There is no suggestion of truancy here.
2. It is also important to note that though the activity is illegal, it is only illegal because the parents of these children are hired help or because the farm is a large one.
If the parents owned the farm, the children could engage in the EXACT SAME WORK, and it would be perfectly legal:
Complete Child Labor Exemptions
Youth of any age may be employed at any time, in any occupation in agriculture on a farm owned or operated by their parent or person standing in place of their parent.
In fact, if they worked on “small farm” and the parents gave consent, the children could, once again, do the EXACT SAME WORK and it would be perfectly legal:
If the youth is younger than 12, he or she can only work in agriculture on a farm if the farm is not required to pay the Federal minimum wage. Under the FLSA, “small” farms are exempt from the minimum wage requirements. “Small” farm means any farm that did not use more than 500 “man-days” of agricultural labor in any calendar quarter (3-month period) during the preceding calendar year. “Man-day” means any day during which an employee works at least one hour. If the farm is “small,” workers under 12 years of age can only be employed with a parent’s permission and only in non-hazardous jobs.
3. Since Wal-Mart, Kroger and Meijer can’t be associated with illegal activity, they all did the smart thing by disassociating themselves from this farm and this controversy. It is, however, worth noting, that it is not at all obvious that their actions help these children, which is, presumably, the point of the child labor laws.
The parents who bring their children to the fields are poor. If these chains won’t buy their employer’s blueberries, the company will have to lay off the workers. When you live close to the waterline, you drown if you miss one paycheck. So in all likelihood, although disassociating from the situation may be legally required and create good press, it is not likely to help the children if their parents lose their jobs.
4. We have to guard against a kind of moral obtuseness where if we don’t see the harm, that means it doesn’t exist. These poor people can’t afford to send their children off to day camp in the summer so they can do archery and go swimming. They can’t afford an academic program so the children’s achievements won’t dissipate over the summer. They can’t afford to have Mom quit work and stay home to watch them, so they bring their children to work.
It is not in any way obvious that the children would be better off if their parents made them sit by the side of the field all day long doing nothing. By harvesting they get to be closer to their parents, they get to do something useful and feel like they are making a contribution to their family.
These people get paid by the piece, so a little extra money from the kids working, for a family at this level, means a new pair of sneakers before school, a chance to go the dentist or maybe a little something in a Christmas stocking.
In all the anxiousness of retailers to distance themselves from this morally “shocking” activity, nobody stepped up to say the only thing that would really make a difference, which would be to pay more for blueberries and set up an arrangement so that the money would go to fund a free summer camp for these children.
5. There is not the slightest indication that the parents of these children don’t love them and want the best for them. We all know there are cases of child abuse and neglect but, in general, parents are the ones who best know what is best for their children, and when we pass laws banning behavior but without providing alternatives, we are not being ethical; we are just allowing ourselves to feel self-righteous because we “banned” an activity — whatever the consequences for those these bans actually affect.
There is a very interesting book titled Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell that explores the nature of what makes certain people successful.
One chapter has to do with Joe Flom, a living legal legend and the last living named partner of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, the prominent and very successful law firm. The author uses Flom as a symbol for a generation of Jewish families that arrived in New York at the turn of the century and who worked in the garment trade and whose descendents became professionals.
He quotes a study done by a grad student named Louise Farkas who went to nursing homes in New York City and Miami Beach to write up family trees of these Jewish families — but these “trees” were based on occupation, and they were remarkably consistent. Here is her account of “subject #18”:
A Russian tailor artisan comes to America, takes to the needle trade, works in a sweat shop for a small salary. Later takes garments to finish at home with the help of his wife and older children. In order to increase his salary he works through the night. Later he makes a garment and sells it on New York streets.
He accumulates some capital and goes into a business venture with his sons. They open a shop to create men’s garments. The Russian tailor and his sons become men’s suit manufacturers supplying several men’s stores…The sons and the father become prosperous…The son’s children become educated professionals.
Malcolm Gladwell gives another example to show how consistent the story is. Here is another family tree illustrating a leather tanner who came from Poland in the late 1800s:
The Russian tailor, who brought home piece work for his wife and children to help with, did not do it because he hated them. He did not do it because he was indifferent to their well being, he did it because they were poor and, in his opinion, this was the best route to get the family out of poverty.
We don’t know what is the best available option for the children of migrant farm workers in the blueberry fields of Michigan. And, of course, we have to follow the law.
Still, we are wondering if this law really helps the children or if it just helps advocates feel good. We suspect that our Jewish tailor from Russia and his family would not have been better off had the government inserted its judgment for what was best for the tailor’s children between the tailor and his family.
Just because these migrant farm workers are a different religion and from a different place, we are not really convinced that they shouldn’t be given the same right to exercise judgment in order to help their children as we extended the Russian tailor decades ago.