The voices of America’s farmworker children rang out across Capitol Hill last week at a film screening I attended hosted by Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard of California. The event featured a selection of scenes from La Cosecha/The Harvest, the latest documentary film by director U. Roberto (Robin) Romano, as well as a discussion about the issues facing farmworker families with production company Shine Global’s co-founder Susan MacLaury and Executive Producer and actress Eva Longoria Parker.
Congresswoman Roybal-Allard has proposed legislation that aims to close the loophole in the current Fair Labor Standards Act, which currently allows children as young as12 years of age to legally work unlimited hours in agriculture outside of school hours. The agricultural exemption in Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) also allows children 16 years of age to perform work deemed by the Department of Labor as “hazardous work,” while all other industries require hazardous work to be performed only by adults aged 18 years or older.
A 16-year-old working at Home Depot may not drive a forklift to move palettes in the store’s warehouse as this type of job has been deemed “hazardous work” by the U.S. Department of Labor, requiring all individuals to be 18 years of age. However, that same 16-year-old is allowed to drive the same exact forklift to move the same exact kind of palettes at a farm’s packing house due to the agricultural exemption in the FLSA. (See additional examples here.)
When asked by an audience member why legislation had not yet been passed to eliminate the discrepancy in FLSA, Congresswoman Roybal-Allard replied, “The main obstacle has been from Agriculture itself.” She also cited the lack of awareness most Americans had about the conditions under which their food is harvested; Mr. Romano agreed and elaborated, stating, “The U.S. is a third world country where agriculture is concerned.”
Ms. Longoria Parker described meeting a young farmworker child who hated strawberries because they grow so close to the ground, making it back-breaking work to harvest the fruit. “I don’t think I had ever met a child before who hated strawberries,” Ms. Longoria Parker mused, “This isn’t even a labor issue, it’s a human rights issue.” I left the screening feeling conflicted, glad that children’s rights in agriculture are becoming a more notable issue, but distressed for the thousands of children who are still suffering daily, waiting for the unequal law to change. Hopefully with the support of Congresswoman Roybal-Allard and Eva Longoria Parker, La Cosecha/The Harvest will make a deep impact on the minds of American legislators to do the right thing and better protect farmworker families and their children.