US blueberry farms accused of using children as pickers

Author: By Stephen Foley in New York

The revelations came as federal authorities said spot checks on farms in the state of Michigan found that more than half were violating child labour or migrant housing rules.

Human rights groups have stepped up their calls for a clampdown on agricultural businesses, where they say children are routinely exploited. Poor families put their children to work to make ends meet, while agriculture bosses, struggling to meet supermarkets’ relentless demands for lower-priced goods, are turning a blind eye, campaigners say.

Walmart and two other supermarket chains said they were suspending dealings with Adkin Blue Ribbon Packing Co, the Michigan-based supplier at the heart of the latest scandal. Walmart will not buy anything from Adkin “pending the outcome of an investigation by our ethical sourcing team”, a company spokesman said.

Adkin general manager Tony Marr said the company did not condone the use of children at its growing facilities. “Walmart, Kroger and Meijer are very large customers of ours,” he said. “We’re cooperating with them in providing information about our internal investigation, trying to figure out what the kids were doing there.”

The children were being put to work because their small hands are more efficient at picking the tiny fruit. They carted buckets of blueberries and provided other help to their parents, also workers on the farm, according to footage obtained by ABC News.

A five-year-old girl named Suli was shown lugging two full buckets of blueberries picked by her parents and her brothers, aged seven and eight. An 11-year-old boy on the farm said he had been picking blueberries there for three years.

Government investigators found four children working in Adkin’s fields during an unannounced visit in July. At least two of the children were under 12, including a six-year-old.

Federal law does not allow children younger than 12 to work on farms. Children who are 12 or 13 can have non-hazardous farm jobs outside of school hours if they work on the same farm as their parents or with written parental consent. In all other industries, the minimum age for workers is 14.

Human Rights Watch, which is campaigning to have the minimum age equalised, says that the laws covering child labour on farms reflect a “bygone era”. The group’s executive director, Lois Whitman, wrote to Congress last month saying: “Today, the vast majority of child farmworkers are not working on their parents’ land but are hired labourers employed by large commercial enterprises, and exposed to the increased hazards of heavy mechanization and pesticide use.”

Thomas Thornburg, attorney of Farmworker Legal Services, said labour law violations are rampant among farms that use migrant workers. “This isn’t one abusive employer,” he said after the ABC News investigation at Adkin.

Michigan is America’s largest blueberry producer. Federal checks of 35 farms in the state led to eight being fined for violating child labour laws. Adkin was fined for both housing and child labour violations, and it paid more than $5,500 (£3,345) in penalties.

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