Sunday, May 30, 2004

Violation of child labor laws growing -

Teen laborers working on farms -

Teen laborers working on farms

Santa Barbara News-Press

SANTA MARIA, Calif. - In some ways, Apolinar Ramirez Garcia, who died in a car crash near Sisquoc this month, was a typical 17-year-old boy: He had a way with girls, and he loved to dance.

But most of Apolinar's life as a teenager was not so carefree. At the time of his death on May 4, driving home after a 10-hour day picking lettuce, he had been working full time in the fields of the Santa Maria Valley for three years. He did not attend school.

Apolinar's death brings into sharp relief one of the open secrets of the valley's lucrative strawberry and vegetable operations - child labor. In some ways, farmworkers say, it is nothing new: Underage workers have always labored full time in the fields here. But what's different now, they say, is that more teens than ever seem to be emigrating from Mexico and heading straight for the fields - so many that some of the older workers fear for their own jobs.

"The bosses want young and strong persons, recently arrived here," said Pedro Lopez, who heads the United Mixtec Farmworkers Organization in Santa Maria. "Young people will work faster. And if you're older and you live here, they know you know your rights."

Superior Court Judge Barbara Beck of Santa Maria, who presides over the county's juvenile court, notes an apparent influx of teen immigrants.

"I'm seeing very young kids, 15 and 16 years old, coming into the country," Judge Beck said. "It's getting more prevalent than it was. I don't know what kind of papers they have. They're working in the fields, at car washes and fast-food places that don't have the ability to check for IDs."

Many immigrant parents, such as Onofre Ramirez, Apolinar's father, say they depend on their children's wages.

"I would never blame the growers," Ramirez said. "... We poor people have to find a way to get ahead. You never know what the future holds. So you lie to the bosses and you tell them you're 18. It's a necessity of life."

On paper, at least, the rules governing child labor in California are strict. They were enacted to protect children from physical harm and put an end to the cycle of poverty by requiring that children attend school. Yet in practice, state officials say, there is an underground economy in California agriculture that makes it easy to exploit undocumented workers, including children.

Last year, the California Department of Industrial Relations uncovered only 26 violations of child labor law in agriculture, compared with 185 in all other industries.

"It's hard to find minors who are working," said Dean Fryer, a department spokesman. "When we see child labor, we go after it. But it may not be reported. Parents want the kids to work, and they need the money. The work crews move frequently, too. If we get a report on any given day, by the time we get out there they may have moved on."

Compounding the problem, Fryer said, is the shrinking number of investigators who can conduct surprise sweeps in the fields. The department has 57 investigators to cover the whole state, down from 97 in 2001.

Child labor laws apply to all minors under 18 here, including undocumented immigrants. Children under 16 are required to attend school full time. Minors under 18 are allowed to work while school is in session if they have completed seventh grade.

Minors under 18 must have a permit from a school district to work, and employers are required to keep these permits on file. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds who have not finished high school and are working must attend continuation school.

The first violation carries a fine of $500 - for the employer, not the minor - and the fine for each successive violation is $1,000.

In a sweep of eight Santa Maria Valley fields earlier this month, state investigators discovered one child labor violation - the young worker did not have a permit - and they fined the grower, Ruby Farming Inc., $500. On the same day, by contrast, two other Santa Maria farms were fined $36,000 for failure to provide workers' compensation insurance for their employees. Growers in the valley's strawberry industry, which grossed $143 million last year, say they are careful not to violate child labor laws. They say they always ask to see Social Security cards and other IDs.

"There are so many rules involved in hiring people under 18 years of age that we do not hire them, period," said Daren Gee of DB Specialty Farms, a strawberry operation that employs more than 1,000 workers in the valley. State records show that the farm was targeted in this month's sweep, but received no fines.

"Anybody that looks like they're under 18, we don't hire them," Gee said. "We just don't do it. We just made it a flat rule. Everything has to go by the books."

Similarly, a spokesman for Durant Harvesting, a local farm labor contractor, said it was the firm's policy never to hire anyone under 18. And another grower who asked not to be identified said his contractors check two forms of identification for every applicant.

For some immigrant teens in the valley, school is simply not a choice. They started working in Mexico before they were 12, without finishing sixth grade. In Santa Maria, they are supporting themselves and sending money to parents and siblings across the border. Many working teens come from the impoverished Mixtec region of the state of Oaxaca, Mexico.

"I had to stop studying because we had no money," said one 17-year-old Mixtec girl who arrived here a month ago to pick strawberries full time. She said she had been out of school for three years.

During the peak of the strawberry season this month, she is working 10 hours per day and picking about 50 trays. At $1.50 per tray, that's a daily wage of $75.

Gloria, another 17-year-old Mixtec farmworker in Santa Maria, said she has never been to school. But she is a fast strawberry picker. She can fill up to 100 trays per day, although last week, she said, with fewer berries on the plant, she was averaging 80 trays.

Gloria, who declined to give her last name, helps support her mother and two younger sisters who attend school in Santa Maria. She has been working in the valley for three years, picking grapes, squash and chilies. Beginning at age 10, she worked in the fields of Sonora, Mexico.

"Strawberries are the hardest because you have to bend over," she said.

There are no statistics on the number of youngsters emigrating to Santa Maria to work. But Judge Beck said she's seen several dozen immigrant teens in the past year, more than in the past. Most of them are Mixtecs, she said, and the court has had to scramble to find Mixteco translators.

"This is something we never saw before," Judge Beck said. "They'll buy a little cheap car somewhere and invariably get caught driving without a license or driving under the influence, or they'll get in an accident. The school has no clue they exist."


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