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I Was a Child Farmworker

A Q&A with Norma Flores Lopez, director of the children in the fields campaign.

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MTS: Last question. What policy priorities will you be pushing for in the next administration?

NFL: So last year, in September of 2011, the Secretary of Labor introduced updates to the list of hazardous orders, which is the list of dangerous jobs that children should not be allowed to do.

She tried to introduce that, and then unfortunately those rules were pulled. Because there was mounting pressure from the agribusiness industry. Not the folks that are moms and dads owning and operating a small farm, but these huge corporations that benefit from having kids working out there in their fields.

So we tried get this list of rules updated, because it was mostly focused on farmworker kids and keeping kids from doing things like working in tobacco fields, where right now it is allowed for 12 year olds to work in these tobacco fields and be exposed to nicotine levels as high as the equivalent of 36 cigarettes.

There’s also updates like making sure that these kids aren’t working to heights of up to 20 feet. Those kids have no training, no safety equipment, but are allowed to work at heights of 20 feet. Had those rules been updated, it would have been changed now to six feet. [The difference between ] falling from 20 feet or falling from six feet can make such a huge difference for a child, especially when there is no safety equipment or training involved.

So these were some real common ssense changes that we were hoping for. But those rules were pulled in April of 2012.

So what we want to do with this next administration is to work with the Department of Labor to focus on these particular changes that would most benefit these particular kids who are farmworkers, and see if there’s ways for us to be able to push that.

Of course we will continue to push for the CARE Act, the Childrens Act for Responsible Employment, which is a bill that has been introduced for the past ten years, and what that would do would be to equalize the child labor laws, so that these kids, these farmworker children, have the same opportunities and protections that every other child has in America.

Then of course we have our grassroots campaigns that are looking at some of the local issues and finding solutions. In North Carolina in particular, we are looking at the state level to outlaw 12 year olds working in those tobacco fields, as that’s where you’ll see a lot of these kids working. So we’re also trying to not just work with the federal agencies, but also at the state level and hopefully grow support that will reach all the way up to Washington DC.

Mariya Strauss is a Baltimore-based writer.