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Wednesday, November 4, 2009 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | PREVIOUS: Low Road to High Finance: McClatchy Expose Reveals...
2009-11-04

Blueberry Farming Giant Found to Use Child Labor at Michigan Fields

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An ABC News investigation has exposed how one of the country’s largest blueberry growers uses child labor on its fields. Adkin Blue Ribbon Packing Company in South Haven, Michigan is at the center of this scandal. Wal-Mart and the Kroger supermarket chain were among Adkin’s high-profile customers that have now cut ties with the blueberry grower. We speak to ABC News chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross and Teresa Hendricks of Michigan Migrant Legal Aid. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

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

JUAN GONZALEZ:

We end today with a look at the ABC News investigation that exposed how one of the country’s largest blueberry growers uses child labor in its fields. Adkin Blue Ribbon Packing Company in South Haven, Michigan is at the center of this scandal.

Wal-Mart and the Kroger supermarkets were among Adkin’s high-profile customers that have now cut ties with the blueberry grower. A Wal-Mart company spokesperson told ABC News it will not buy anything from Adkin, pending the outcome of an investigation by the company’s own ethical sourcing team.

Separately, the Department of Labor cited Adkin and seven other blueberry growers in Michigan for violating child labor laws.

This is an excerpt from the ABC News investigation, “The Blueberry Children.”

    BRIAN ROSS:

    This five-year-old girl, Suli, helped lug buckets of berries picked by her parents and older brothers in Michigan. Her older brothers are Picho, who is eight years old, and Cristobal, who told us, in Spanish, he was seven.

      ABC REPORTER: ¿Cuántos años tienes?

      CRISTOBAL: Siete.

      ABC REPORTER: ¿Siete?

    BRIAN ROSS:

    In Michigan, this boy, whose migrant family comes here every year, told us his long days, often going to 9:00 at night, make him very tired.

      ABC REPORTER: How long have you been doing this?

      MIGRANT BOY: This is my third year.

      ABC REPORTER: Your third year? How old are you?

      MIGRANT BOY: Eleven.

    BRIAN ROSS:

    If true, it is a flagrant violation of the US child labor law. These fields are part of one of the largest blueberry operations in Michigan. The Adkin Blue Ribbon Packing Company, a supplier for Wal-Mart and the Kroger and Meijer’s grocery store chains. Adkin says he has a strict policy against children working in his fields. But he would not answer our questions about the five-, seven-, eight- and eleven-year-olds we found there.

AMY GOODMAN:

An excerpt of “The Blueberry Children,” an ABC News investigation, included research by four fellows from the Carnegie Corporation who spent weeks in fruit and vegetable fields in Michigan, New Jersey and North Carolina. Democracy Now!’s own Kieran Krug-Meadows was one of those four fellows.

We’re joined now by Brian Ross, the chief investigative correspondent at ABC News, and by video stream from Grand Rapids, Michigan by Teresa Hendricks of Michigan Migrant Legal Aid.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Brian Ross, lay out what you found.

BRIAN ROSS:

Well, with the help of the four Carnegie fellows, we discovered a pervasive pattern, really across the country, of a situation that has continued for decades and has gone unenforced. There are laws against children this young working in agricultural fields. But for the most part, until very recently, those laws were largely ignored by federal authorities at the Department of Labor.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

And Brian, because this has been going on for so long, how is it that some of these companies, like Wal-Mart and the others, didn’t know?

BRIAN ROSS:

Well, that’s a good question. They do certainly inspect the blueberries for quality, although it’s fair to say that to get out in the fields, where our four students went, takes some time. It took them weeks to work their way into the fields to discover that. This is off the road, off the main highway, so it takes some digging to find that out.

AMY GOODMAN:

Teresa Hendricks, executive director of Michigan Migrant Legal Aid, speaking to us from Grand Rapids, talk about the effect of this exposé in the fields.

TERESA HENDRICKS:

Well, what this did was really shed light on just the tip of the iceberg of the horrors that the migrant families go through, and I was glad to see that it highlighted part of their life. This is something that has gone on for decades in Michigan and in other states, and it’s nothing unusual for us to see. We’re quite used to seeing that. And what we found was that we have raised the bar in the level of awareness for what the families go through, as far as bad housing conditions, dangerous working conditions, being drastically underpaid, not being paid at all, in some cases being held in almost slave-like conditions by certain unscrupulous crew leaders. So we were glad to see some attention to this issue, because we’ve been dealing with it for years.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

And Teresa, speaking about the long-term nature of this problem, I remember in the early 1970s, when I lived in Philadelphia, actually going blueberry picking when I was a youth. The buses would come into the poor neighborhoods of Philadelphia and pack whole families out to go out to South Jersey to pick blueberries. But in those days, you had unions that had developed, farm worker unions. You had FLOC in Ohio. You had the Committee of Agricultural Workers in South Jersey and, of course, the United Farm Workers in California. Have you seen, with the decline of union organizing in the fields, that these child labor conditions have gotten worse?

TERESA HENDRICKS:

Yes, we have seen conditions go gradually down every year. And we’ve tried to organize farm workers here, but they’re so afraid of retaliation and losing the job that they have, that it’s even hard to get them to stand up for themselves, even when they’re in the most dire of situations.

AMY GOODMAN:

Brian Ross, talk about the response of the companies.

BRIAN ROSS:

Well, the companies responded quickly after we contacted — first Wal-Mart, then we heard from Kroger and Meijer’s grocery store chains. Wal-Mart had actually put up a big billboard several years ago featuring Randy Adkin as one of its local blueberry growers. They said they were stunned to learn what we had found.

At the same time, the Department of Labor, which had begun an investigation back in June, chose the day before our broadcast to announce the results of its investigation. It had cracked down, it said, on blueberry growers in Michigan, as well as North Carolina, Arkansas and New Jersey. So there seems to be a new effort coming out of the Department of Labor now to at least — they’re aware of the situation and are taking some steps to remedy it.

AMY GOODMAN:

Teresa Hendricks, talk about the whole issue of being paid by the piece, not by the hour, and what this means.

TERESA HENDRICKS:

Well, the piece-rate system builds in an incentive for underpayment. So what happens is, you need all of the hands in the family picking, because you’ve got to get — for example, blueberries have to be harvested in a limited period of about ninety days. So you need everybody picking at the piece rate to try to make the minimum wage. Now, if they were guaranteed and the employers kept good track of the hours that were worked by every member of the family, they could actually earn a living wage.

But so, you uncover things like, there could be scales that are off and measuring wrong, and they’ll get underpaid that way. Or now we’re seeing more sophisticated payroll software programs, where they can back into the hours to make it look like they earned enough by minimum wage standards while picking for the piece rate, or they’re able to manipulate the data on the computer. So, the ways that they’re being underpaid are being expanded, and they’re more sophisticated these days, and we have to stay on top of that.

You know, and this really sheds light on what’s going on in this country, because we have less protective laws for these twelve-year-olds than a lot of other countries, like India and Tanzania, Guatemala, Kenya. It’s incredible, if you look at the law on our books, how poor it is compared to other countries. And then, when you look at the enforcement of the laws we do have on the books, it’s even more shameful.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

And are there particular states, Teresa Hendricks, that are tougher in enforcing laws against child labor, or is it just a general decline in standards throughout the country?

TERESA HENDRICKS:

Well, I can tell you that my colleagues in the migrant advocacy world think that the US Department of Labor could do more and pay more attention to these issues, especially when it comes to the techniques that are used to underpay them on their paychecks or paying them cash or by other incentives. So I’m not sure it’s a success in any one state that we can look at. I think we need improvement in every state.

AMY GOODMAN:

Why are kids there with their parents, Teresa, in the fields? And what would it mean if they’re just — if their presence is banned?

TERESA HENDRICKS:

Well, the children are actually helping the family. An average family of four will make usually under $12,000 for the year. So the parents, when they allow the children to work in the fields, and the crew leaders encourage it, are not doing that to become rich; they’re doing that so they can have food on the table and they can eat. Sometimes it’s the difference between having school supplies or having enough gas to get to their next migrating state. So it’s a matter of economic necessity and also a matter of urgency, in that you have a limited time period to get all of the crops in.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

And Brian Ross, what about the issue of immigrant labor, often undocumented or illegal immigrants working on some of these farms? How does that affect their ability to be able to insist on decent working conditions?

BRIAN ROSS:

They can’t insist on anything, because they fear being reported or deported. In fact, the Carnegie fellows who work with us report that oftentimes the children would run away. They were afraid that somebody would spot them in the field. Now, a lot of these migrant families come from Florida and Texas, and the children are American citizens, and they’re due full protection. But there have been cases where the father or the parents have been deported, the children left here. It’s a horrible situation that puts them at a huge disadvantage to demand even the most basic rights.

AMY GOODMAN:

And Teresa Hendricks, what does it mean now for Wal-Mart to cut off the relationship with Adkin there in Michigan, where you are at the Michigan Migrant Legal Aid?

TERESA HENDRICKS:

Well, I think it’s an important and responsible reaction to the situation. I think that they should look into more of the labor issues that go into the products that they sell. And we’re very happy that our local retailers here, like Meijer, have decided not to do business with these growers.

AMY GOODMAN:

Do you believe Wal-Mart has known about this over the years, Kroger has known about this over the years?

TERESA HENDRICKS:

I would think that would be unlikely, since this is a situation that happens in remote areas and rural areas in between bushes, and you have to be adept and skilled at going out and knowing what you’re looking for, like the US Department of Labor investigators and our staff.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

And what about those who are contracted not as day laborers, but for the harvest season? What kind of a housing situation do the families — are they provided by the growers?

TERESA HENDRICKS:

Well, we have under — we have not enough housing in Michigan, so sometimes they are put up in grower housing. We have about 900 camps that will get licensed or are supposed to be licensed, although that rarely happens that we get to all of them. So you have families either living in nearby areas or living directly in the camps, and they’ll work for growers and go from field to field.

AMY GOODMAN:

Finally, Brian Ross, do you think Wal-Mart should be backing investigations, before the ABC investigative unit comes in?

BRIAN ROSS:

Well, they say they have their own office and they enforce this. I’ve done stories in the past on Wal-Mart involving child labor in places like Bangladesh. And since that time — and I did those reports more than a decade ago — I think they have at least taken a stronger public position. And I think it’s fair to say, and I think Teresa would agree, that the Department of Labor fines have been very slight. No more impressive action or stronger action can be taken than when they’re cut off, when growers like Adkin are cut off and the business is actually hurt. That can make a difference, as opposed to a fine of $1,000 per child, which is just a slap on the wrist. The Wal-Mart action was significant in that respect.

AMY GOODMAN:

Brian Ross, we thank you for being with us, chief investigative correspondent of ABC News, and Teresa Hendricks, of the Michigan Migrant Legal Aid unit. And congratulations to Kieran Krug-Meadows.

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