Recent citations by the U.S. Department of Labor to blueberry farms and farm labor contractors in Michigan and New Jersey, along with a recent segment on a popular TV news program, have shone a spotlight on an ugly issue in the harvesting of fresh produce.
Two Michigan blueberry growers were the latest in joining farms and farm labor contractors from New Jersey as entities having been cited and fined by the Department of Labor for child labor violations over the past five weeks.
The two Michigan growers, Adkin Blue Ribbon Packing Co., South Haven, and Jawor Bros., Ravenna, were fined a total of $2,584 in late October because of children under the legal age of 12, including one six-year-old, working in their fields.
A month earlier, three blueberry farms in New Jersey — Oakcrest Farms, Cappuccio Farms and Columbia Farms — were fined for underage workers. Three farm labor contractors also were cited for child labor violations in the New Jersey case.
Other employers in both states were fined for violations involving unsafe housing conditions for migrant laborers, among other infractions.
The instances have produce trade associations reaching out to members joining in their concerns for staying vigilant in fair labor practices and have the Department of Labor issuing a warning that growers are being watched.
The investigations are part of the Department of Labor’s ongoing initiative to protect the rights of agricultural workers under the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act and Migrant Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. It follows similar investigations and fines issued previously in North Carolina and Arkansas.
“Certainly, this is not limited to the blueberries industry,” said Brad Mitchell, spokesman for the Department of Labor’s Office of Public Affairs. “I would hope growers would get the message that we are looking, and we’re not giving passes on this.
“We hope employers become more diligent in making sure children are not in their fields.”
The Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits children under the age of 14 from being employed with but a few exceptions, such as acting, newspaper delivery and nonhazardous occupations where a child is employed by a parent.
The rash of citations to blueberry growers, capped by the recent incidences in Michigan, prompted an official response from at least one trade association for the fresh produce industry.
“I know you all have policies against illegal child labor,” Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of the Washington D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, said in a statement, addressing growers head-on. “But it is our responsibility to make sure policies don’t just sit in a binder somewhere but are being enforced every day.”
The Adkin Blue Ribbon Packing Co. case was highlighted in a segment on ABC News’ “Nightline” on Oct. 30. That report, led by ABC News reporter Brian Ross, showed a 5-year-old girl named Suli carrying two buckets of blueberries in an Adkin field in early July.
It also showed two brothers of Suli’s, who said they were 7 and 8, picking blueberries, and the reporter spoke with one other boy who said he was 11 and that he’d been working there three years and often worked until 9 p.m.
Tony Marr, general manager of Adkin Blue Ribbon, said his company is investigating what happened. He said the company has policies in place with regard to labor laws, and it’s trying to figure out where and how they broke down. He said the local migrant farmworkers’ kids school was closed for a week because of an outbreak of H1N1 flu, and funding has been cut in recent years for daycare.
He said his management told him the girl, Suli, came out at the end of the day and grabbed a couple buckets of blueberries before her mother checked out.
“Growers everywhere are saddled with trying to keep kids out of fields,” Marr said Oct. 30. “I can’t say for a fact that she wasn’t working all day, but one camera shot by a TV crew doesn’t show she did either.”
Marr said no underage children were on Adkin’s payroll. He said today’s economy and labor market ensures that adequate, legal labor is available.
“We can hire as many adult workers as we need,” he said. “We don’t need to hire children.”
Three of Adkin’s major retail customers — Wal-Mart, Meijers and Kroger — suspended business with Adkin pending investigation.
Jawor Bros. sells blueberries to Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms. A representative from Naturipe said it was looking at the citation and fine as a “one-time incident.”
“Jawor has very strict rules about child labor, and they’re very careful in their practices,” said Robin Doran, director of communications for Naturipe. “A parent brought their child to work, unbeknownst to Jawor. The child came into the work area. Someone from the Department of Labor was on-site doing a spot check of documents when the child walked by.
“Jawor paid the fine, and everyone is committed to carefully observing and following labor laws and remaining educated about it.”
Doran said Naturipe intended to take a close look at enhancing educational practices and developing training tools to better educate growers and their employees about child labor laws.
“We take these things very seriously and do not condone illegal practices,” Doran said.
Marr declined to identify the company that markets Adkin’s berries, but Traverse City, Mich.-based North Bay Produce Inc.’s Web site identifies Adkin’s Blue Ribbon as a label the company offers.
Randy Villata, executive director for the Folsom, Calif.-based North American Blueberry Council, said his organization was regarding the ABC News report as an isolated incident and will be working with the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council in educating the industry better with regard to child labor regulations.
“It’s a good wake-up call,” Villata said. “Not only for the blueberry industry, but for all industries. We have to be forever vigilant in following rules and regulations.”
Poor housing conditions resulted in fines totaling $33,550 for seven fruit and vegetable growers in Michigan, including another $4,600 fine for Adkin Blue Ribbon. Penalties imposed in September to 15 New Jersey employers totaled nearly $45,000 in addition to $13,000 in back wages owed to 214 workers. All back wages have been paid, according to the Department of Labor.