March 31 was Cesar Chavez's birthday and as way to honor his commitment to farmworker rights, civil rights groups and labor leaders are urging supporters to call their lawmakers and ask them to endorse the Children's Act for Responsible Employment.
The measure, known as the CARE bill (HR-3564) aims to protect the safety, health and well-being of farmworker children. The bill would adjust the age and work hours for children in the agricultural business to the same standards as other sectors, ensuring equal protections for all children. It also has provisions to increase enforcement of child labor laws.
Currently 77 members of the House of Representatives have sponsored the legislation, but more are needed to get the bill passed.
Farmworker rights groups say working in agriculture is one of the most dangerous occupations in the U.S. and hundreds of thousands of children work in fields throughout the country. Child farmworkers as young as twelve often work 8-12 hour days under dangerous and grueling conditions, they note. They risk poisonous pesticides, injuries, and suffer fatalities at five times the rate of children working in other jobs. As a result of their long hours, they drop out of school at alarming rates and nationally barely half graduate from high school.
"As we celebrate the National Farmworker Awareness Week and Cesar E. Chavez Day, please take a moment to think of how the food got to your table," said Norma Flores, program director for the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Program's Children in the Fields Campaign in a recent statement.
Flores continued, "There are an estimated 400,000 children harvesting the foods that you eat and despite popular belief most are American children. All children, regardless of how they look or how they speak, are precious and deserve to be protected," she said.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was established in 1938 to stop the use of child labor in the U.S. The measure mandates workers be a minimum of 16 years old in all non-agricultural industries, yet it allows children to legally perform farm work at age 12 for an unlimited number of hours outside school. Children performing agricultural work deemed by law as "hazardous" can be as young as 16, while hazardous work in every other industry is strictly reserved for adults.
However while FLSA regulations require children to be at least 12 years old, farmworker rights leaders say they see children as young as six years old harvesting fruits in the fields. Children have also been spotted playing in the fields among heavy machinery, covered in pesticides due to a lack of labor enforcement resources, they argue.
"We need to continue the struggle worker's rights advocate Cesar Chavez began in defending America's farmworkers," said David Strauss, executive director of AFOP, the group Flores represents.
Strauss, Flores and others urge supporters to call their congressional lawmakers and honor the life of Chavez by asking them to support the CARE bill.
In a statement the Labor Council For Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) said, "Chavez was a man who led the historic nonviolent movement for farmworker rights and appealed to the humanity of every individual, calling on us to make this nation a more just place by fighting for social and economic justice in our workplaces and our communities."
LCLAA continued, "As we celebrate his birthday let us remember Cesar's life, his struggle for justice but also honor his legacy by making our country a better place for all workers especially children working in the fields."
When the CARE Act is signed into law, children working on farms will have a chance to succeed in school and lead healthy and productive lives, supporters say.