This week, advocates from around the country are taking part in the annual World Day Against Child Labor to fight the exploitation of children as young as twelve who work in harsh conditions in the agriculture industry.  While these conditions are truly abhorrent, they will never seriously be addressed until we recognize the root cause of child labor: extreme poverty and a marginalized workforce.  Workers need freedom of association and a collective voice to make demands for workplace safety and decent pay. 

I grew up as a child laborer in agriculture myself.   In the 1950’s, my family, started migrating to Midwestern states from Texas.  I worked next to my parents and siblings as a six-year old.  This was not the family plan, but one driven by extreme poverty and hunger.  This reality persists across our entire country in labor-intensive crops to this day.

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We support current legislative efforts like HR 1848 that would prohibit kids from working in dangerous tobacco-related agriculture, but laws alone will not solve the problem.  Taking children out of this work is desirable, but it doesn’t address the root problem and it strips vulnerable families of much needed income.  In the 46 years I’ve been organizing farm workers, the only effective remedy for ending this cycle has been to extend to farmworkers the same basic labor rights enjoyed by other sectors.  Given that opportunity, the workers themselves will bargain away the precarious wages and job insecurity that drives poverty, hunger, and child labor.  

This is not a pie-in-the-sky idea; we accomplished it with Campbell’s Soup, Vlasic Pickle, Heinz USA and Dean’s Foods in the early 90’s.  Laws did not change the situation, farm workers did - through negotiated agreements involving the entire supply chain after an 8-year strike on tomato farms and a 7-year boycott of Campbell’s Soup products. Once the manufacturers were pressed by farm workers to recognize freedom of association, we ended all child labor in northern Ohio.  

Farmworkers won these accomplishments in the Midwest and are organizing in the tobacco industry in the South today, but the discrimination against farmworkers under labor law impedes these organizing efforts. In 1935, agricultural workers were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees the right to organize. While other sector workers successfully negotiated solutions to major issues including child labor, agricultural workers were left behind and are left stuck with that legacy to this day.

If our goal is to end child labor in our time, big tobacco companies like Reynolds American must follow in the footsteps of Campbell’s Soup and others by negotiating agreements that guarantee labor rights in their supply chain.

The time is now to fix the mistakes of the past and give our farm workers and their children a brighter future. The time is now to advocate for the right to freedom of association for farm workers so they can advocate for safer workplaces and the fair wages they need to keep themselves and their families safe.

Velasquez is executive director of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee of the AFL-CIO.