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2007-03-13

Harvest of Shame: Report Accuses Child Labor Abuses in Guatemala

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President Bush traveled to Guatemala on Monday and said free trade can spread opportunity, provide jobs, and help lift people out of poverty. But according to a new report, there is a food processing plant less than 10 miles from where Bush spoke where children as young as 13 years old are working under deplorable conditions. We speak with veteran anti-sweatshop activist Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee about the report. [includes rush transcript]

For the past week on his trip through Latin America President Bush has been praising U.S. efforts to end poverty in the hemisphere and promoting the benefits of so-called free trade agreements with Washington.

  • President Bush, speaking in Washington DC.

On Monday, President Bush traveled to Guatemala and said free trade can spread opportunity, provide jobs, and help lift people out of poverty.

But there is a darker side about U.S.-Guatemalan trade relations: less than 10 miles from where Bush spoke there is a food processing plant where children as young as 13 years old are working under deplorable conditions.

According to the New York-based National Labor Committee, the children, working at a factory owned by Legumex, harvest and process vegetables and fruits exported to the United States.

The National Labor Committee has just published a * report* on the conditions at the Legumex factory. It is titled "Harvest of Shame."

Charles Kernaghan joins me now. He is a veteran anti-sweatshop activist and the executive director of the National Labor Committee.

The vast majority of the exports at the Legumex factory in Guatemala are sold to Superior Foods, based in Watsonville California. We invited a representative of Superior Foods to join us on the program but the company declined.

In an emailed statement, Marco Cruz of Superior Foods, wrote:

“We are committed to ensuring that all product purchased, sold or distributed by our company is produced with ethical labor practices and in strict compliance with local labor law. At every facility we work with in the U.S. and abroad, we conduct periodic audits and inspections to validate critical issues as food safety, food security, product quality and working conditions. We are surprised and concerned about the labor violations alleged in the NLC report and will immediately investigate these serious allegations in that particular facility.

“We outspokenly do not support producers who cannot clearly demonstrate that they abide by local labor laws, and we will discontinue working with this processor if abuses are evident and not entirely and satisfactorily resolved. Meanwhile, we will exert our influence to see that these allegations are addressed openly and soon, and that remedial action is taken if and wherever necessary.

"Our hope would be that fruit and vegetable production in Guatemala is ultimately sustainable and that it can and will help create the best possible opportunity for the workers and growers in that area. We’d much rather be an agent for constructive change and improvement than simply be one of a number of buyers who can even more easily simply discontinue business in this region. As a matter of policy, we continually pressure all of our suppliers to encourage progressive labor practices that advance productivity, better pay and better working conditions."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: For the past week, on his trip through Latin America, President Bush has been praising US efforts to end poverty in the hemisphere and promoting the benefits of so-called free trade agreements with Washington.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Millions across our hemisphere who every day suffer the degradations of poverty and hunger have a right to be impatient, and I’m going to make them this pledge. The goal of this great country, the goal of a country full of generous people, is an Americas where the dignity of every person is respected, where all find room at the table and where opportunity reaches into every village and every home.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, President Bush traveled to Guatemala and said free trade can spread opportunity, provide jobs, and help lift people out of poverty.

But there’s a darker side about the US-Guatemalan trade negotiations. Less than ten miles from where Bush spoke, there’s a food processing plant where children as young as thirteen years old are working under deplorable conditions. According to the New York-based National Labor Committee, the children, working at a factory owned by Legumex, harvest and process vegetables and fruits exported to the United States. The National Labor Committee has just published a report on the conditions at the factory; it’s called "Harvest of Shame."

Charles Kernaghan joins us now. He is a veteran anti-sweatshop activist, executive director of the National Labor Committee. Welcome, Charlie, to Democracy Now!

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: It’s good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: So what did you find in Guatemala?

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, like you said, as President Bush was there speaking about the benefits of the CAFTA, the Central America Free Trade Agreement, there are children working in these processing factories. These are agro-industrial plants. They process fruits and vegetables for export to the US. This Legumex factory exported more than four million pounds of frozen broccoli and melons and pineapples to the US last year, much of it going to US schoolchildren, we think, because it was coming through a company called Sysco.

Well, inside the factory, they’re all kids. The vast majority were thirteen years of age to seventeen — sixteen, seventeen years of age. It looks like a high school, but it’s not a high school. These kids are going in from 7:00 in the morning until 7:00 at night, fourteen hours a day, six days a week. Sometimes they have to come in earlier, at 6:00 or 6:30 in the morning.

They do an extraordinary amount of work, these young kids. Thirteen-year-old kids, we watched them cutting up broccoli. You know, you buy those frozen broccoli florets in the stores. Every head of broccoli, they grab these heads of broccoli, and with a knife they make thirty-seven cuts, and then with their hands they break the broccoli apart into ninety-seven pieces. So there’s ninety-seven operations. They do one broccoli every sixty-four seconds. So they’re making a cut every seven-tenths of a second. And this is all day long, seven-tenths of a second. I mean, flying through. They’re cutting themselves with their knives. They’re on their feet all day. They say their feet swell up. Their backs hurt. They’re exhausted. They make the same movements over and over again. Their wrists swell up.

But they told us something that was extraordinary. They were doing like 692 pounds of fruit and vegetables a day. These are thirteen-, fourteen-, fifteen-year-old kids. But they said to us, the worst was the melon. And we said, like, "Why?" They said, well, you work in the water, because they’re constantly washing the floor. So here you have thirteen-, fourteen-, fifteen-year-old kids standing in sneakers in an inch of water for twelve hours, and they say that their feet begin to crack, the skin, and bleeds — and they begin to bleed.

And they just kept going on. They said, you know, the factory is quite cold. This area of Guatemala is in the highland. It’s quite cold. And plus, they’re freezing these vegetables. So their workers are surrounding in an area called preparation, surrounded by all of these freezers, and it’s freezing cold in there. And they won’t let the kids wear sweaters, because the sweaters may get lint onto the fruit or onto the vegetables. So you have kids working in cold temperatures in t-shirts, but all the supervisors are walking around in sweatshirts and jackets. And they also say to the kids, "It will make you lazy if you wear the sweater. So if you wear that sweater, we’re taking it away from you, and we’re going to throw it away."

So you have kids, you know, working twelve hours a day in the cold, often standing in an inch of water, their feet are bleeding, their hands are cut and they’re cheated their wages. And the company actually tells the kids — this company was not, you know, too reticent to discuss with the children why they wanted them. They said, "Look, you have no responsibilities. You don’t have families. You’re not a parent. You don’t have to worry about kids or a house. You’re just here to work." And they would constantly scream at them to go faster, go faster. Most of the workers were earning about half of the legal minimum wage. They didn’t have social security, which is mandatory in Guatemala. They weren’t paid for holidays. I mean, this place was like — this place was a bad place, and this was right next to where George Bush was giving his talk about the benefits of free trade.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who gets the fruit and the cut vegetables here in the United States. How does the system work?

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, this was interesting, because it was very difficult to track. But we were able to track like, say, frozen broccoli and other goods into the United States to a company called Superior in California, Watsonville, California. From Superior it would go to giant companies like Sysco, which is the largest food processing and distributor company in the United States. It also went to US Foodservice, which is the second largest food service company in the United States.

Much of this stuff went to schools, which means that children in Guatemala were not only harvesting the broccoli. Children in Guatemala were processing the broccoli, and that broccoli was coming to the United States, and it was being eaten by children in the United States in schools. It also went to the US military, also went to federally funded hospitals.

So, on the one hand, while we talk about worker rights protections in CAFTA — which, of course, is zero — when we talk about them, that’s one thing, but just imagine the message it delivers to a factory like Legumex, when the US military buys products — indirectly, but the US military is buying products made in that factory. So the real message is: do whatever you want; we don’t care.

AMY GOODMAN: Since you reported that the vast majority of the exports at the Legumex factory in Guatemala are sold to Superior Foods, based in Watsonville, California, we invited a representative of Superior Foods to join us on the program, but the company declined. They did, however, issue a written statement: Marco Cruz of Superior Foods said, "We’re surprised and concerned about the labor violations alleged in the NLC report, and we’ll immediately investigate these serious allegations in that particular facility. We outspokenly do not support producers who cannot clearly demonstrate that they abide by local labor laws, and we will discontinue working with this processor if abuses are evident and not entirely and satisfactorily resolved." Your response?

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, the kids told us that North Americans came into the factory all the time, maybe even once a month. They didn’t talk to the kids. They’re there. They knew what was going on. So they’re in and out of the factory every month. They could see. I mean, some of the kids are so small, it’s like shocking. So it would be impossible not to know.

And also, one other aspect of this factory is that they have a swing shift for the kids, where they work a day shift one week from 7:00 in the morning until 5:00 at night — this is in what’s called the processing department, where they actually freeze the vegetables and fruit — the following week, they swing to an all-night night shift from 5:00 in the afternoon until 7:00 in the morning, fourteen hours. So you have a fifteen-year-old girl we interviewed, all night you’re standing in this factory, fourteen hours right through the night, and, I mean, they’re sick, they’re collapsing, because you can’t adjust your sleeping habits and your eating habits from week to week. And it’s freezing. And she tells you, you’re in there, you’re coughing, you’re spitting up blood. And they go to ask the supervisor that they feel faint, dizzy, can they sit down? And the supervisor screams at them, "If you walk away from your place once more, we’re going to mark you absent for the day!"

AMY GOODMAN: I was interested that Superior Foods said that they must comply with local labor law. What is the local labor law in Guatemala?

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: It’s extremely contradictory. It defines a child as someone who’s under fourteen years of age. So, legally in Guatemala you could work from fourteen up. But then they have loopholes so that ten- or eleven-year-olds can work, if it’s an apprenticeship and if their parents agree and if it’s light work. It’s not very good labor law. It says at one place the work week is works forty-five hours. In the next sentence, it says it’s forty-eight hours. I mean, it’s all over the map, and it’s not enforced. There is absolutely 100% zero enforcement of these labor laws.

And the thing about CAFTA, we’ve had worker rights language in agreements with Central America and the Caribbean since 1983, when the first Caribbean-based Initiative Expansion Act came on board. So we had internationally recognized worker rights standards in our trade benefit programs with Central America since 1983. It’s twenty-four years later. We have the same worker rights language in the CAFTA, and nothing changes.

The children are working. There’s no unions. In the apparel industry in Guatemala, there’s 900,600 workers. There’s a hundred workers organized in a union, which means that the unionization rate amongst the apparel workers is one-tenth of 1%. These workers in this Legumex factory never even heard of a union. We said, "Do you have a union?" They look at us. We said, "Do you know what a union is?" They’d say, "Well, not really. What is it?" I mean, it’s out of control.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain CAFTA. Explain its effect and the role of the Democrats and the Republicans.

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well you know, the CAFTA agreement just squeaked through with two votes in the House. It was not very popular. It’s certainly not popular in Central America. People see what’s going on. So this is an agreement —

AMY GOODMAN: The Central American Free Trade Agreement.

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: The Central America Free Trade Agreement. This is an agreement which — you know, the administration was just desperate to keep some sort of momentum with these free trade agreements, and they figured they could, you know, do this with Central America. We have six free trade agreements now in the United States with countries like Jordan, which was — it turned into slavery and human trafficking.

But, essentially, you know, it’s opening up Central America to US multinational corporations. It’s got all the investment rights down. In fact, the US trade representative went to bat for pharmaceutical companies to make sure that those countries in Central America couldn’t make generic drugs. So the US trade representative, like, fought like mad to make sure we defended the pharmaceutical companies in the United States, the multinationals. But when it came to worker rights, you had the same language, which was meaningless, and there’s no attempt to enforce the labor laws.

I mean, it’s a bad agreement, and it’s not good for the people of Guatemala. It’s not good for the people of the United States. And it really just squeaked through by two votes, and if they hadn’t been buying Congress people off, it never would have passed.

AMY GOODMAN: Charlie Kernaghan, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Charlie Kernaghan is director of the National Labor Committee. We will link to their report, "Harvest of Shame," at our website, democracynow.org.

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