When the American dream becomes a nightmare: “At the age of 13, I worked ten hours in the sun on a tobacco plantation”

Like most child labor cases in the United States, the story of Jose Velasquez begins in Latin America. Specifically, in the state with the highest poverty rate in Mexico, Chiapas, which his mother, a Guatemalan, decided to leave in search of a better future. “I arrived in North Carolina when I was only ten months old. My mother, who did not know English and was not educated, found herself forced to work in the agricultural sector. When she was eight years old, she would take me to the blueberry fields to help fill her buckets and learn her trade. And at 13 I started working for myself on a tobacco plantation, ”she recalls in a conversation with elDiario.es.

Leaving school and taking up the chainsaw: the right-wing offensive against child labor laws in the US


In the United States, children under the age of 21 – Jose’s current age – cannot buy tobacco, but can legally work on his plantations. This is dictated by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which sets the minimum age for agricultural work at 12 years as long as it is done outside school hours. This is a more lax standard than for other sectors, where the minimum is 16. Despite attempts to achieve stricter regulation, opposition from the Republican Party and agrarian lobbies in Congress have prevented end this abuse. Their argument is that raising the minimum age would hurt family farms and make it harder to teach children the trade.

For Jose, in addition to being legal, what he did during the summers was completely normal. “Many of the boys he went to school with also worked in agriculture. He was normalized in our community, he was part of our growth ”, he assures. His family was short of money, so he decided to go to the countryside during the summers to help them and thus “to be able to buy my school supplies and those of my brothers, so that my mother would not have to worry about it.”

In the hot North Carolina summers, with temperatures hovering in the 90s with high humidity, and earning the state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, Jose worked from sunup to sundown, Monday through Saturday, “with the option of also working on Sundays”. “Our work day depended on the weather. If it was a good day, with sun, we would work between 10 and 12 hours. If it rained, we’d go home early and make it up another day. It was a very repetitive job and the working conditions were not the best”, he explains.

“It was very hot. During the summer, maximum temperatures of 40 degrees are reached and that on the field feels even stronger”, says Jose, who most days ended his day “exhausted and dehydrated”. In addition, his work did not have a signing system: he had to keep track of the hours himself, writing them down in a notebook and waiting for the farmer, who was often absent, to pay him for his work.

The harsh conditions of the agricultural sector were added to those of the tobacco plantations: “My colleagues and I felt the intoxication of nicotine and pesticides. We were nauseated, dizzy and in a bad mood to keep working,” he says. And no wonder: according to the World Health Organization, a person who plants, cultivates and harvests tobacco can absorb as much nicotine in just one day as is found in 50 cigarettes.

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Child labor on the rise

The exploitation of migrant minors is nothing new in the world’s leading economy, which is at the tail of rich countries in terms of labor rights. Beyond legal jobs such as Jose’s, the alarming increase in minors working in violation of labor legislation stands out, which according to the Department of Labor (DOL) have increased by 69% since 2018, and by 36 % in the last year. “It is a dramatic situation, which is related to the increase in children crossing the border without the company of their parents,” Reid Maki, director of the Child Labor Coalition organization, points out in an interview with this newspaper.

In 2022 alone, some 130,000 unaccompanied migrant children arrived in the country, triple the number five years ago, and thousands of them have ended up working in highly dangerous conditions, according to an exhaustive investigation by the New York Times. The report splashes renowned food brands such as Cheetos, Ben & Jerry’s and Cheerios, Walmart, Target and Whole Foods supermarkets, or the automotive firms Ford, General Motors and Hyundai. And they add to a continuing investigation by the DOL, which recently discovered 305 children, some as young as 10, working illegally at McDonald’s franchises in Kentucky, Indiana, Maryland and Ohio.

Following the investigation of Times, the Biden Administration revealed data from an internal investigation last year, in which it found that 835 companies were employing more than 3,800 children. In parallel, another federal investigation found 102 children working in 13 facilities of Packers Sanitation Services (owned by the investment fund Blackstone), one of the largest food cleaning companies in the country. As a consequence of these findings, Blackstone was required to pay a $1.5 million civil penalty.

“These young men, between the ages of 13 and 17, worked the night shift and worked in horrific and dangerous conditions: cleaning bone saws, handling harmful chemicals and pressurized hoses,” laments Maki. “In those factories, there were managers who saw the children go in and out every night, and they never reported it. They should take responsibility.”

Big companies are taking advantage of the vulnerability of children who arrive in the United States with nothing and willing to accept miserable conditions to stay in the country. It’s work immigrants have done for centuries, but more and more children are doing dangerous work in America’s fields and factories.

No resources for migrant minors

Most of these children “arrive in the country fleeing poverty and the violence of politicians and gangs endemic to Central America. Many are deceived with the promise of decent work, but they don’t imagine that they will end up working in an environment as horrible as a meat-packing plant,” explains Maki, who has dedicated her life to protecting minors against child labor. In the US, they find themselves with a broken immigration system, unable to respond to the increase in unaccompanied migrant minors.

Children who arrive in this situation are allowed to remain in the country and are placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, which releases them as soon as possible to a sponsor while their asylum claims are processed. Some requests that usually last for years, even decades. “The US government tries to ensure that children do not spend a lot of time in detention, as was the case with Trump, because it has been shown that this is very harmful for them. But they process them so quickly that in some cases they hand them over to people who don’t have the best intentions, they take advantage of them, and that’s how they end up with those bad jobs,” says the director of the Child Labor Coalition.

These jobs are usually found in the southern states of the country. This is the case in Alabama, where the DOL found children working at four plants in the supply chain for Hyundai and Kia. Like other southern states, “it tends to be hostile to workers, the union movement and collective bargaining, and generally has fewer labor rights protections,” Maki notes, “it’s not surprising that big companies end up setting up shop there. their factories.

The director of the coalition against child labor argues that companies that turn a blind eye to human rights violations must be “held accountable” and prosecuted. But he sees a clear determining factor: the Department of Labor does not have sufficient resources, since “it only has 800 inspectors for the entire country and is trying to supervise tens of millions of workers”, which is materially impossible.

In his opinion, it is “critical” that Congress authorize more money for the agency, but after more than a decade of struggle, it does not seem like one of his priorities. In fact, the relative number of inspectors per job post is decreasing year after year: in 1938 it was 64 times higher.

A history of inequality

Jose Velasquez, who worked in the fields between the ages of 13 and 18, acknowledges, now that he has turned 21, that he had better luck than most children in his situation: “I could choose not to dedicate the rest of my life to agriculture . Some classmates had to drop out because their families were struggling and needed the money.” He was able to take a college degree in economics, which he is finishing, and he has just returned to North Carolina, driven by his past. In the state capital, Raleigh, he has started as an intern at a nonprofit organization, Pueblo, which provides resources to Latino children who, like him three years ago, work in the agricultural sector.

“I want to work to build a just society, which does not exclude and leave anyone behind,” he says. “The wealth gap is widening: the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class has disappeared. This pushes many families, especially immigrants, to have their children have to work”. To combat it, he is clear that it is necessary to increase the legal minimum age for agricultural work, from 14 to 16, and mobilize more federal resources against labor exploitation.

Meanwhile, a new wave of legislation pushed by Republican politicians threatens more setbacks: In two years, 14 states have enacted or proposed laws that reduce child labor protections, either by expanding work hours, removing existing restrictions on hazardous work or lowering the working age. The opposition of the Republican Party, supported by large agrarian corporations, has also been responsible for the fact that in the three decades that have passed since the Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed and ratified by 196 countries, the United States continues without ratifying it.

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