Fifty-nine years after Congress outlawed child labor in its most onerous forms, underage children still toil in fields and factories scattered across America.
The poorest and most vulnerable among them start working before other children start kindergarten. Many earn wages below the legal minimum, often in exhausting, or even hazardous, jobs.
These children live in a world apart from most Americans, hidden from consumers and even the companies that buy the products of their labor. Yet those products can sometimes be as close as the local mall or the corner grocery.
In the past five months, the Associated Press found 165 children working illegally in 16 states, from the chili fields of New Mexico to the sweatshops of New York City.
They are children such as Angel Oliveras, 4, who stumbled between chili pepper plants as tall as his chin in New Mexico’s fall harvest. Children such as Vielesee Cassell, 13, who spent the summer folding and bagging dresses in a Texas sweatshop. Children such as Bruce Lawrence, at 8 already a three-year veteran of Florida’s bean fields.
The AP was able to follow the work products of 50 children to more than two dozen companies including Campbell Soup Co., Newman’s Own, Costco, H.J. Heinz and Sears.
All the companies that responded condemned illegal child labor. Many launched investigations when told of suppliers employing underage children.
“If they are, that’s against the law, and they’re gone - they don’t supply to Campbell Soup Co.,” said spokesman Kevin Lowery.
Actor Paul Newman, whose Newman’s Own salsa is made at a plant supplied by New Mexico farms where underage children were seen picking chilies, ordered the plant to stop dealing with the farms’ distributor.
He called the situation ironic, noting that his company gave $9 million in charities this year, much of it to children.
“Even though we weren’t aware of these infractions, I suppose we should have been,” he said.
No one knows just how many U.S. children work illegally because no one, the federal government included, has tried to count them all.
To make an estimate, the AP had Rutgers University economist Douglas L. Kruse analyze monthly census surveys and other government data.
His study estimates that 290,200 children were employed unlawfully last year. Some were older teens working a few too many hours in after-school jobs. But also among them were 59,600 children under age 14 and 13,100 who worked in garment sweatshops, defined as factories with repeated labor violations.
Some corporate leaders said the young workers seen by the AP highlight a home-grown version of what they thought was largely a foreign problem.
Jim Sinegal, president of Costco Wholesale Corp., said his company has monitored overseas suppliers for years to avoid products made with child labor.
However, the company acknowledged buying cherries from a packing plant in Washington state where Flor Trujillo, 15, and six other child workers under 16 were sickened by carbon monoxide last July. Children under 16 are prohibited from working in such plants.
“We obviously have to take a look a little closer to home,” Sinegal said.
Look to a bustling street in New York City’s borough of Queens, where Koon-yu Chow, 15, was found stitching dresses at a garment factory sewing machine last summer. Dresses were being made for Betsy’s Things, a label sold at Sears, until state labor investigators inspected the place and Betsy’s Things took its business elsewhere. Sears said it would never knowingly buy goods made with illegal child labor.
In 1938, Congress declared an end to “oppressive child labor” by enacting the Fair Labor Standards Act.
It banned children under 14 from working most jobs, except on farms. It also extended responsibility beyond the child’s employer, declaring that the taint of illegal child labor clings to a product from the workplace to the final packager or distributor.
Even with such strong laws, America’s youngest workers remain among us.
Near Bowling Green, Ohio, Pasqual Mares looked sadly at his 10-year-old daughter Laura, her back bent over a row of cucumbers. In a full week of harvest work, Mares said, he and his wife and their two working children had earned just $120 - far below the normal minimum wage
While America’s youngest workers often are hidden from view, their work products can make their way to the store down the street.
H.J. Heinz buys some of its chicken from Chestertown Foods, according to Chestertown plant manager Jack Laird. Filomena Simon Perez, 15, worked cutting up chickens at the Maryland processing plant, which also sells to Campbell. She was one of six undocumented workers under 16 found when U.S. immigration agents raided Chestertown in September.
Campbell confirmed it buys mushrooms from a farm in Chester County, Pa., which this fall employed Jose Ortiz, age 14. While other kids were in school, Jose picked mushrooms eight hours a day.
At Heinz, purchasing agent Ronald Brooks said the company has worked for years to get farm workers’ kids out of the fields and into decent housing or day care.
“We take the issue very seriously,” Brooks said. “It’s not totally new and foreign to us.”