Child Labor Laws
In 2009, fourteen years after the publication of Viramontes' novel, Under the Feet of Jesus, Lois Whitman, the Executive Director of the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, wrote this plea to U.S. lawmakers, in an attempt to address ongoing problems with existing child labor laws:
For over 10 years, Human Rights Watch has documented dangerous and grueling working conditions for hundreds of thousands of children working in US agriculture. This summer, in Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and Michigan, we interviewed children hoeing cotton and sorghum in scorching heat, cutting collard greens and kale with sharp knives, hitching and driving tractors, and stooped for hours picking cucumbers. We found children as young as 11 and 12 working 10 or more hours a day. They often received pay far below the minimum wage. Many employers provided no drinking water or toilets. Children described smelling and, in a few instances, being sprayed with pesticides. Many children had left school early or were still working elsewhere when their home schools started in August.
Unfortunately, these dangerous and exploitative working conditions are currently allowed by US law. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), agricultural employers can hire children as young as age 12 to work unlimited hours outside of school, and in some circumstances, even younger children with their parents' permission. In contrast, employers outside of agriculture are prohibited from hiring children below age 14, and may only employ 14- and 15-year-olds to work 18 hours during a school week, and not more than 40 hours in a nonschool week. No such restrictions apply to children working in agriculture.
The exemptions for agriculture in US child labor law reflect a by-gone era where family farms were the norm. Today, the vast majority of child farmworkers are not working on their parents' land but are hired laborers employed by large commercial enterprises, and exposed to the increased hazards of heavy mechanization and pesticide use. The result is not only widespread exploitation, but some of the highest work-related injury and illness rates of any area of youth employment.
Under the Feet of Jesus reveals the impact of the flaws in existing child labor laws in the late 20th century. Every member of Estrella's family has to work, regardless of age. Estrella, a bilingual teenager who is a legal citizen of the United States, has to work with the rest of her family in order for the family to survive. The concept of “child labor laws” seems to have no existence in these characters' lives. One passage makes this clear, as the family and other workers are in the field under the blazing sun.
A young boy of ten hobbled down Alejo's row. . . Alejo greeted him with a wave of his cap, but the boy continued walking, punching holes in the soft soil with his steps, barely lifting a hand to return the greeting. Ricky [also age 10] found Estrella's row. He looked feverish and she put down her basket of grapes and pressed the water bottle to his lips . . .
In the novel, the only people who seem to really care about the health of Estrella and her siblings are her mom, Petra, and Perfecto. Also, Estrella, a thirteen-year-old, has to be the one to take charge when her young friend Alejo gets ill.
Viramontes makes clear in her novel that child labor laws for migrant agricultural workers in the United States are either ineffective or not adequately enforced.
Whitman, Lois. "United States: Adopt Stronger Laws for Child Farmworkers." Human Rights Watch. 14 September 2009. Web. 05 December 2012. <http://www.hrw.org/news/2009/09/14/united-states-adopt-stronger-laws-child-farmworkers>
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