JULY/AUGUST 2000 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 7 & 8


BEHIND THE LINES

 

Child Labor in the USA
Although the United States ratified the 1999 International Labor Organization convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, and the U.S. Congress has denied trade benefits to developing countries that do not comply with the new treaty, the United States itself is not in compliance with the treaty, according to a leading human rights group.

Because of exemptions in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), as well as weak enforcement of existing regulations, hundreds of thousands of child farmworkers in the United States are working under dangerous and exhausting conditions, according to a new Human Rights Watch report, "Fingers to the Bone." 

Human Rights Watch says that child farmworkers in the United States -- the vast majority of whom are Latino -- regularly work 12 to 14-hour days, often suffering pesticide poisonings, heat-related illness, machine and knife-related injuries and life-long disabilities. Many are forced to work without access to toilet or hand-washing facilities or adequate drinking water.

Although Human Rights Watch estimates that there are at least one million child labor violations in the United States each year, the U.S. Department of Labor cited only 104 cases of child labor violations in 1998.

"Farm work is the most dangerous work open to children in this country," says Lois Whitman, executive director of the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "U.S. laws should be changed to protect the health, safety and education of all children."

World Bank Stumps Russia
Five days after Russian President Vladimir Putin dissolved his country's two leading environmental agencies, the World Bank approved a $60 million loan for projects involving direct partnership arrangements with the abolished agencies. 

Putin axed the State Committee on Ecology and the Federal Forest Service on May 17. Government officials claim the agencies' duties will be assumed by the Ministry of Natural Resources. Russian environmental groups counter that "it is widely known that this Ministry's primary goal is the expansion of commercial activity and not the protection of the environment."

"The abolishment of these agencies puts the prospect of responsible foreign investment at significant risk," wrote leading Russian environmentalists and their international allies in a letter to World Bank President James Wolfensohn. "With these regulatory, permitting and enforcement functions gone, the legal basis of projects that rely on these functions is undermined," notes the letter, sent days after the Bank announced in early July that it would release another $1 billion to Russia later this year.

Johannes F. Linn, a World Bank vice president for Europe and Central Asia, responded in a letter that he is "confident that it was the right decision for the World Bank to proceed with the Sustainable Forestry Pilot Project loan ... We support the government's commitment to improve management of the forestry resources and introduce more environmentally sustainable practices." Linn says the Bank will not disburse the funds until implementation arrangements have been made that satisfy the Bank's environmental safeguard policies.

Russian news agencies have already reported a dramatic rise in illegal logging since the environmental agencies were abolished.

Return to "the Jungle"?
New meat inspection rules proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) reduce the direct role of government inspectors, potentially increasing the amount of diseased meat allowed on the market, according to watchdog groups and meat inspection union officials.

Under a pilot program designed to test the new inspection model, federal meat inspectors watch industry-hired inspectors who examine the meat themselves. The program, which FSIS says is designed to increase industry responsibility, is currently being tested in 30 U.S. facilities.

FSIS says that under the new program "there are more food safety checks than under traditional inspection," because if the company does not remove bad meat going down a processing line, the inspector "is required to step in and correct the situation." But watchdog groups say increased line speeds make this less likely.

"The chicken industry stands to gain the most by this rule," Felicia Nestor of the Government Accountability Project says. "Line speeds under regular inspection are about 90 birds per minute. At some pilot plants the lines are going at 170 birds per minute. The result is more birds through for the same labor cost, more volume per day. Plus, with company inspectors deciding which birds are edible, there's a probability that they will get more birds through, resulting in a higher yield." As a result, GAP expects an increase in carcasses with tumors and other signs of disease to reach the market.

While FSIS responds that independent consultants from Research Triangle Institute have found a decrease in defects and contamination in the pilot plants as compared to FSIS' traditional slaughter inspection system, not everyone is convinced. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia threw out the USDA's attempt to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the inspectors' union, ruling that "the government believes that federal employees fulfill their statutory duty to inspect by watching others perform the task. One might as well say that umpires are pitchers because they carefully watch others throw baseballs."

-- Charlie Cray