Pundit’s Mailbag —
There’s More To Child Labor
Than Meets The Eye
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 13, 2009
Our piece, When Child Labor Laws Don’t Necessarily Help Children, brought many phone calls from retailers explaining why they could not possibly be associated with child labor in the fields.
Yet it also brought some interesting letters backing the Pundit’s position:
As an apple grower in New York, recently introduced to the Perishable Pundit, I wanted to write and congratulate for the unabashed use of common sense in your thoughts about child labor in agriculture.
If there is one thing that has almost completely disappeared from our everyday dealings, it is common sense. I can’t believe I’m in the minority thinking like this, if only there were more “Pundits” in the media willing to stand by the obvious.
— Rod Farrow
Lamont Fruit Farm, Inc
Albion, New York
The issue of November 9, 2009 was perhaps your best issue ever — full of great articles and arguments! I also just finished the book you mentioned, Outliers: The Story of Success, and loved the “10,000 hours” argument for achieving perfection. The Pundit must be logging in around that many hours by now!
But actually, this comment is about your piece on child labor in the fields…
As someone who has worked with growers from Mexico for many years, I have seen the misconception of “children working in the field” perpetuated by the U.S. media.
In many of Mexico’s northern ranches dependent on migrant labor from southern states, they recruit entire families to work for several months. They provide housing, food, hospitals, dentists, soccer fields, and yes, schools and day care. All this at high cost and great effort by the growers. (If anyone in the industry has a chance to visit these exceptional facilities in ranches in Sinaloa and Sonora, everyone should do so. Media and retailers we have taken on these tours are amazed.)
That means that when the parents are working, the children are in school or day care. The children are required to attend school. If per chance the children are out in the fields, it is because school is out and the parents desire the children to be out there with them.
You made the argument regarding the immigrant Jewish families mentioned in Outliers who took home piece work and had their wives and children pitch-in… It’s also valuable to look at the Mexicans as seeking to pave the way for the future by having their children watch and learn. Possibly this will be their “trade.” If not they still learn about hard work and discipline. Again, this is the choice of the family, and never forced by the landowner/rancher.
We need to make this important distinction and understand human choice when we argue against what we see in this country as forced child labor.
— Veronica Kraushaar
VIVA Global Marketing, LLC
We thank Rod Farrow for his kind comments. Though we would say that the issue is not so much a question of common sense but, rather, a question of a sort of rarified sensibility that many people affiliated with issue advocacy groups seem to possess.
We approach the issue from a perspective which says that what counts ethically is not our intentions but the results of our actions. So, in this case, we look at the children and what will help them or hurt them.
For many, such calculations simply don’t enter into their assessments. What they are concerned with is themselves; it is that they should never be exposed to something untoward.
So, if a proverbial “sweat shop” opens up in their neighborhood and people work 12 hours a day in difficult conditions — they want it closed. They don’t want to see it. Even though closing it might mean the same people go back to their country of birth and work 18 hours a day in worse conditions for less money.
It is also the case that wiping something from one’s sight is often cheap and easy — ban it, close down the operation, pass a law.
Really doing good typically takes more effort and expense.
In this case, funding scholarships to send children to sleep away camp, opening a summer tutoring program so the kids can keep up academic achievement during the summer just like rich kids do… all these things are expensive and difficult and the volunteers to step up are few.
Veronica Kraushaar always performs a valuable service by pointing out the reality of life in Mexico and how cultures adapt to the realities of their situation.
Veronica’s mention of the “10,000 hours” argument from the book raises an intriguing point. The gist of this argument is that it takes 10,000 hours to acquire true proficiency in things.
The book starts out by pointing out that in Canada, where they make an incredible effort to find children who have hockey-playing potential, the top Canadian skaters are disproportionately chosen from the ranks of those with birthdays early in the year.
Basically what happens is that as young children the coaches select the bigger and stronger kids to be in more advanced leagues. Though the skill level may be inconsequentionally different between two children — one with a January birthday and the other 12 months younger in December — the selection of one child to qualify for an advanced league that includes more ice time and better coaching is filled with consequence. Fifteen years later that inconsequential difference in skill has become a massive gulf due to practice and training or, in the terminology of the book, because one kid got his 10,000 hours on the ice and one did not.
Perhaps this is the reason our society should not be content with simply wiping something like child labor from its collective view. If we are really concerned about this issue, we have to develop beneficial alternatives.
In the mass of young children either in the field or shunted aside doing nothing because of the laws, there is a great concert pianist — but she must begin playing. There is a biologist who will cure cancer — but he must start studying. There is a planet of human potential — but it must be developed.
Our complaint with things such as President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act is that these initiatives are only focused on bringing underperformers up to average. In a Democracy, every person counts — so we support this ideal. However, the future really relies on getting the most intelligent students working to their potential.
We just wish that instead of everyone being so outraged and everyone rushing to disassociate themselves from child labor, someone would step up and offer an alternative that will help us allow every child to learn up to his or her own potential.