April, 2023 Monthly Reflection

The Real Cost of Migrant Labor in the U.S.

By Christine Commerce

When we think of child labor, do we conjure up images of children in India working 12-hour days making rugs? Do we have images of youth who are supporting their families by farming the land in some far-off country? Do we consider the young boys picking cocoa pods to make our chocolate or forced to take up arms and fight as child soldiers?

While all those images are accurate, we should also ask ourselves who produces the food that is grown in the United States. Does it cross our minds that boys and girls in the U.S. are also being exploited by working long hours in factories and picking the produce we consume? Do we think about them operating dangerous machinery and working with toxic chemicals and pesticides for the food we eat? Do we know that American companies are violating child labor laws where children and teens are working to support themselves and their families instead of going to school?

According to a recent New York Times article: Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S., twelve-year-olds repair roofs in Florida and Tennessee. Underage workers labor in slaughterhouses in Delaware, Mississippi, and North Carolina. Children saw planks of wood on overnight shifts in South Dakota.

These are the faces of migrant child labor in the U.S. Children who are forced to stay with unknown relatives or caregivers and whose trauma continues once arriving in the U.S. We’ve seen news reports on the atrocities of young children being ripped from their mother’s arms and separated in detention camps when they arrive here. As a mother myself, I can imagine no greater pain than the anguish of having your young child torn away from you and placed in a holding area where there is no comfort, love, or someone to assuage their fears. For me, you may as well reach out and rip out a piece of my heart. This was meant to be used as a deterrent for families fleeing and coming to the U.S.

There has always been the draw of the American dream for a better life. Now, the draw is self-preservation. Who would leave the only country they have known, their homes, their livelihoods, and their families to risk their children’s lives if they had a choice? Starvation, violence, and threats to their lives force people to take risks where they feel they may at least have a chance. Many arrive here legally seeking asylum. Staying behind and not being able to feed their family or face violence and even death, is not a choice, it’s a necessity. When given a choice, who would risk giving away a piece of their heart?

So, the answer was to allow the children who seek refuge here to be placed with families or caregivers as soon as possible. Overtaxed governmental staff are pressured to quickly turn over children to family members already struggling to care for their own families, forcing these children to work to help contribute to the household. Those may be considered the lucky ones. In some cases, children found themselves in the hands of traffickers who exploit them for labor, sex, or both. With not enough case managers to oversee and adequately respond to these situations, these children fall through the cracks. Some have gone missing, and others may never be reunited with their families again.

How do we respond? Do we welcome the stranger? Do we act based on the principles of so many immigrants who came before us and founded this country? Those who once sought a better life to escape persecution. Or do we respond with fear of them bringing crime to our country and taking our jobs?

In recent media reports, the fact is that migrant children are working in farms and factories because of a labor shortage. (Read: The U.S. Is Choosing Child Labor Over More Immigration.) They are not the ones causing labor shortages. They are the ones providing the products that we readily consume. The administration has announced plans to investigate companies that violate child labor laws and rightly so. (Read: Biden Administration To Crack Down on Child Labor) But that doesn’t solve the problem of the worker shortage and families having to support themselves. Would it not make more sense to allow these children to come to this country with their parents so their parents can work these jobs and their children can go to school to become contributing members of society rather than forced to perpetuate the trauma and hardships they must endure at no fault of their own?

Then, there are the migrant farmworker families who are fortunate enough to reside in this country together but often work long hours along with children who work in school all day and labor in the afternoon, evenings, and weekends. These children go back to school with a tan, not from a beach vacation, but from working long hours in the hot sun on the weekends. They labor for our food which is so plentiful and readily available in our grocery stores that we may not consider the hands that picked the food that we consume. They are not afforded sick days or overtime and the basic rights of so many U.S. workers. (Watch: the National Farm Worker Ministry’s webinar “Introduction to Child Labor in Agriculture”.

Would you pay a penny more a pound for tomatoes? Would you pay a penny more if it ensured laborers would be paid a fair wage, be allowed to take water breaks, and ensure that they are not exploited and assaulted in the fields in which our food is grown? Some companies have made a commitment to the Fair Food Program. Others allow greed to cloud the basic human dignity everyone should be afforded. (Check out our AEHT webinar: Slavery in Our Tomatoes).

I don’t fear that someone is going to steal my teenager’s job at a fast-food chain or my job. What scares me is the result of the long-term impacts of the trauma these children endure, and how it will trickle down to future generations. We are afraid of the wrong things. Would it not make more sense for these children to be given a chance at an education and become productive members of society instead of perpetuating poverty, illegal child labor, and continued trauma? Would it not make more sense to provide them with secure families who could provide many of the goods and services we consume? Would that not help address labor shortages and help put an end to human trafficking and labor exploitation?

Could we pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes when such a small price would have such great returns and cost us so little? As we bite into that juicy hamburger or scrumptious salad, we could be rewarded with the knowledge that everyone could be satisfied with the sweet taste of justice.

Take action and learn more about the Intersectionality of Human Trafficking with Migrants, Refugees, and Internally Displaced People in our education modules. Become informed about the CARE Act and Child Labor Coalition at stopchildlabor.org and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers Fair Food Program.

Communications Director Christine Commerce

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