Nearly two years after ABC News cameras uncovered young children toiling away in Michigan's blueberry fields, federal investigators have found yet another disturbing example of illegal use of child labor in the berry industry.
Three southwest Washington strawberry growers were fined $73,000 last week after the U.S. Department of Labor found children between the ages of six and 11 working in their strawberries fields in June.
While an exemption in the federal child labor law allows 12- and 13-year-olds to work for unlimited hours on large agricultural operations, children under the age of 12 are strictly prohibited from working under similar conditions.
Andrea Schmitt, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services in Olympia, said that the low wages made by workers in the Northwest berry industry are a key factor driving young kids into the fields. She said that berry pickers, who are usually paid a piece rate instead of an hourly wage, often struggle to make the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
"Minimum wage laws are not being followed with the adults who are working in this industry. Across the board, we see people making $5 or fewer an hour," said Andrea Schmitt, who provides legal services to low-income families working in berry picking. "People can't make minimum wage by the piece and so if they have another set of little hands adding to the pile of berries, they might be able to make enough to live on."
Two of the southwest Washington state growers cited with fines – George Hoffman Farms and Berry Good Farms – were found to be in violation of minimum wages laws. The two growers, along with Columbia Fruit LLC, have taken steps to remove the underage workers from their fields and will be required to attend training conducted by the federal government over the next three years, according to a Department of Labor statement.
Representatives for Columbia Fruit LLC and Berry Good Farms did not respond to requests for comment. George Hoffman declined to comment, referring ABC News to his attorney who was unavailable.
To force the companies into compliance, the Department of Labor invoked an infrequently-used enforcement tool called the "hot goods" provision which prevents farmers from shipping produce harvested in violation with child labor laws.
"Agricultural employers must understand that the Labor Department will vigorously enforce the federal labor laws, especially when it comes to protecting vulnerable workers such as children," said Jeffrey Genkos, director of the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour division office in Portland, Oregon, in a statement. "Agricultural employment is particularly dangerous for children, and the rules for their employment must be followed."
Schmitt said that harvesting low-growing strawberry plants can be arduous work for children.
"The kind of work that kids are doing on commercial farms, I think, is fundamentally different than the kind of berry-picking people did as kids 50 years ago," said Schmitt. "We're talking about kids who are picking 100 to 200 pounds of berries a day. In strawberries, that's a lot of stooping and standing. They complain to us about backaches -- their backs hurt when they sleep at night -- and we see these horribly bruised knees."
The violations in Washington were found two years after a 2009 ABC News investigation discovered children, some as young as five and seven, illegally working in the Michigan blueberry fields of a major supplier to Walmart and other chain grocery stores. Walmart suspended ties with the supplier pending an investigation and later reinstated the company after it took steps to assure Walmart that underage children would no longer be working in its fields.
Following the ABC News investigation, the Department of Labor announced a broad enforcement campaign against farmers employing children illegally, including increased fines for violators. The Department also moved to hire and train 250 new field inspectors, and said it would shift its strategy to promote compliance with more investigations conducted on weekends and evenings when children were most likely to be working in the fields.
The $8,117-per-child penalties assessed in the recent Washington cases appear to be a significant increase from the $1,100-per-child average fine charged to blueberry growers in Michigan, Arkansas and New Jersey found to be illegal employing underage children in the summer of 2009.
Still, some labor advocates say that the publicly touted changes made by the Department of Labor have yet to yield any significant increase in enforcement activity.
In a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis sent last Friday, Human Rights Watch expressed concern over a "disturbing overall decline in enforcement of child labor law" at the Department's Wage and Hour Division. The non-profit group, which documented the use of child labor in farm work in a report released last year, cited 2010 Labor enforcement data showing that the Department's agricultural inspections dropped by 9 percent from 1,379 in 2009 to 1,259 in 2010. The data also show that child labor violations in agriculture decreased from 36 cases involving 109 children to 31 cases involving 49 children during the same one-year period. Human Right Watch also found that the "hot goods" provision employed in the Washington was only used in one case per year.
The Department said that the number of enforcement hours in agriculture have actually increased during the last year by eight percent.
"The Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division (WHD) remains committed to protecting the health and well-being of children in agricultural workplaces. However, the WHD is not just focused on conducting more investigations, but in balancing a number of strategies to promote compliance with the agricultural labor standards for which it has enforcement responsibility," said a department spokesperson. "These strategies include added enforcement tools and resources, new regulations and increased public awareness such as news releases about violations uncovered in farming operations. It has and will continue to increase investigations and outreach to farmers, farm labor contractors, workers, parents, teacher, and others who provide services to farm workers and other federal agencies."
Back in Washington state, Schmitt says that she has seen little evidence of a broad enforcement campaign by the Department of Labor in her area.
"It's always been my hope the Department of Labor would pay attention to this region," said Schmitt. "I'm hopeful that this is not a one-time thing."