Broken Promises, Stolen Childhoods

Today is International Human Rights Day, a day set aside to commemorate the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the member states of the United Nations. It has become the most ratified document in UN history with over 180 signatories. Today, most Americans would assume that we all enjoy liberties and rights under law basic, set out by our founders; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But that assumption would be dead wrong. Particularly if you are a migrant family, forced by low wages and lack of opportunity into pressing your children into hard labor, 12-14 hours a day in pesticide-soaked fields, simply for economic survival. This is the face of inequality in America today and this is how we are treating our children, and they are OUR children, in the richest country on earth.

America ratified the International Labour Organization's Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor in 1999, and yet every day for the past 15 years we have ignored the very resolution we both signed and co-authored while actively pursuing the end of child labor in every corner of the world, with the sole exception being our own backyard. America,  which sets itself apart as exceptional, has an exceptionally bad history protecting its most vulnerable.These violations occur every day in every state of the union where children work, some as young as 7 or 8 years of age, harvesting our food, exposed to industrial accidents 8 times greater than any other segment of the economy, exposed to chemicals, forced to forfeit their chance to obtain an education and now, viewed with suspicion as a result of the raciallydivisive campaigns waged by Presidential candidates who are sorely lacking in basic facts, empathy or compassion, and who trade on ignorance.

Regrettably, the Obama administration has also backed away from enforcing rule and regulations designed to protect children from pesticide poisoning,  chronic poverty and a resulting nation-wide school drop out rate among migrant children of nearly 60%.  After working with civil society while Secretary Solis ran the Department of Labor, the administration scuttled regulations designed to protect children as a part of their own re-election campaign. It was a bad moment for those of us who felt betrayed by an administration that pledged greater protections for children, only to cut and run under the pressure of election season politics. To this day, the DOL seems unable or unwilling to perform its most basic functions and push for a change of the 1938 law that would finally and properly protect our children in the fields.

The Republican-controlled Congress has worked to prevent these same meaningful protections for children for the past 15 years, choosing instead to coddle agribusiness, the only industry exempt from regulations regarding child labor in the U.S.  Our children, and these are our children, have been left to indifference - they are nothing more than cogs in a broken economic engine built on exploitation. They make little or no income, but they work to help their families. Their rewards are limited educational opportunities and compromised health from pesticide exposure.

Today, children working in America's fields, picking our fruits and vegetables, have no federal protections for their basic health, safety and future. Unlike virtually any other form of work available to children, child labor in American agriculture remains exempted from law under an antiquated statue from 1938, The Fair Labor Standards Act.  This act allowed for children on the "family farm" to work alongside their parents. However, the family farm has now given way to agribusiness, which still uses the cover of a 1938 law to enable them to exploit children as a key part of their workforce. Attempts to change and update the law, have been met with false claims that it constitutes an attack on the American way of life. It seems impossible for me to imagine that Americans would consider the exploitation of children as okay, let alone as an irreplaceable part of our way of life.

There is a bill before congress, H.R. 2764, that needs to be moved from the House Education and Workforce Committee where it languishes and put to a vote. Only a vote in both houses will tell Americans how their representatives feel about extendingbasic human rights to our own children. The House Bill has a mere 24 co-sponsors and virtually no discernible support in the U.S. Senate.  I think this is a shameful record, a low point for a Congress held by the electorate in near universally low esteem. And we wonder why? How can a government charged with protecting and extending human rights to all ignore the children that feed their own? This is the sobering reality of International Human Rights Day 2015.

Len Morris received the Iqbal Masih Award from the U.S. Department of Labor in 2012 for his life's work to end the worst forms of child labor.