While I was fretting over the exploitation of American school kids forced to hawk boxes of candy to pay for camp fees, high school-age kids in Guatemala were working like dogs in a food processing plant not far from where George W. Bush spoke in that country.
Everywhere he goes in South and Central America Bush is greeted with protests and signs calling him a murderer. During a portion of his travels, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela shadowed Bush, speaking nearby, sometimes shouting, “Gringo, Go Home.” It reminded me meanderings, delivering crazy upbeat messages of friendship and prosperity, oblivious to the hostility–which is so intense that, at one sacred site, the minute he leaves the place Mayan priests plan to conduct a purification ritual to banish his vibes.
Yesterday Shrub was in Guatemala yapping about the magnificent effects of CAFTA (the Central American Free Trade Agreement). This so-called free trade, he said, will spread opportunity, provide jobs, and lift people out of poverty. Meanwhile, less than 10 miles away at the Legumex food processing plant, the abovementioned kids were working under deplorable conditions, detailed in “Harvest of Shame,” a report put out by the National Labor Committee.
Legumex prepares fruits and vegetables for freezing, most of it headed for American schools or other institutions such as the military. You’ve probably never even paused, after opening a box of frozen broccoli, to wonder how those big leafy messy long-stemmed gorgeous plants get transformed into neat dainty florets to fit in those little cardboard boxes. Well, here’s how: a worker makes 34 cuts with a knife and another 63 operations with her fingers to break off the florets, performing 97 operations total to process one head of broccoli. It takes 64 seconds to complete the task. In 13 days, one worker processes about 1228 pounds of broccoli.
These figures are pre-set by the company–according to the report, Legumex has higher than average production goals. A worker, typically a sixteen-year-old girl, is paid about 1.2 cents per pound for her work.
Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee, speaking on Democracy NOW this morning, said that when you walk into the factory it looks like a high school—all the workers are teenagers—“but,” he added, “It isn’t a high school.” For the sake of the produce the plant’s temperature is kept way down, and workers are forbidden to wear sweaters, lest any lint make its way into the produce. (Consider what you’d do if you found a speck of lint on your frozen broccoli: you’d take it back to the store, outraged. I know I would.) The kids stand in puddles that collect from washing the produce. Eventually the skin on their feet cracks and bleeds. Not surprisingly, they’re frequently sick—but even if they spit up blood, they aren’t allowed to sit down and rest.
Under CAFTA the plant is subject to inspections, and the kids say inspectors come by every month—still, nothing ever changes. Guatemalan Labor Law, a mass of confusing contradictions, is little help. As for unions, less than one percent of these kids have ever heard of such a thing. They work 10 and 12-hour days and are rarely if ever paid overtime. According to the report, the median wage is $3.66 for a routine 10 ½ hour workday—or 35 cents an hour; by law the workers should earn at least $10.56 a day, an average of $1.01 an hour including overtime.
It’s a horror story straight out of Charles Dickens—only it’s not fiction, and it’s happening now. For more information, visit The National Labor Committee at http://www.nlcnet.org.