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02 November 2009

Shameful Open Secret In Our Own Backyard


NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) is the rally cry by many Americans who oppose the opening of a homeless shelter, a food pantry, or a low income housing development. They don’t want all those poor people in their neighborhoods. I faced the NIMBY attitude daily when I served my community and my Country as a volunteer with AmeriCorps. It is astonishing just how much energy people can expend fighting against programs to help the poor and the homeless. What many Americans don’t mind having in their backyards is the use of children as agricultural workers.

“In the fields, the United States is like a developing country, ” Darlene Adkins, Coordinator, Child Labor Coalition. told Human Rights Watch in a telephone interview, 25 January 1999. According to the Human Rights Watch article:

[Children] are routinely exposed to dangerous pesticides, sometimes working in fields still wet with poison, often given no opportunity to wash their hands before eating lunch. They risk heat exhaustion and dehydration, as their employers fail to provide enough water, or any at all. They suffer injuries from sharp knives, accidents with heavy equipment, falls from ladders. Repetitive motions in awkward and punishing poses can interfere with the proper growth of their bodies. Lack of sleep-because they are working too many hours-interferes with their schooling and increases their chances of injury. Depression affects them more often than other minors, a reflection of the cumulative stresses and burdens in their young lives. Only 55 percent of them will graduate from high school.



In a country where parents routinely send a a relatively affluent teen to work in a fast food restaurant where they make hamburgers after school for a few hours a week as a lesson in hard work, children in America’s fields work as much as 70 hours per week. Compared to the after school burger joint child worker who must be paid minimum wage, the children of migrant and immigrant farm workers are usually paid as little as $1 to $2 per hour.

The Fair Labor Standards Act provides less protection for children who work on farms than those who work in other industries. To date, the United States has refused to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Human Rights Watch notes that, “The United States is off to a dubious start in this regard, having claimed that it is already in full compliance with the convention and that no change to law or practice is necessary.” President Barack Obama described America’s failure to ratify the Convention as “embarrassing” and promised to review our failure to ratify the Convention.

Not surprising, conservative political groups and politicians expressed strong opposition to ratification of the Convention. Regarding the Convention, President George W. Bush said:

“The Convention on the Rights of the Child may be a positive tool for promoting child welfare for those countries that have adopted it. But we believe the text goes too far when it asserts entitlements based on economic, social and cultural rights. ... The human rights-based approach … poses significant problems as used in this text.” World Net Daily, Bush team signals new U.N. direction Decries ‘erosion of parental authority’ in internationalization of family policy by Mary Jo Anderson, February 02, 2001.

Jennifer A. Marshall and Grace V. Smith writing for The Heritage Foundation claim, and many conservatives believe, that the Convention on the Rights of the Child undermines parental authority. They cite the following as an example of the provisions of the convention that undermine this authority:

The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.



The Heritage Foundation article is a perfect example of America’s resistance to accepting that there are cultures and nations on this planet besides ourselves. It echoes the fear mongering rhetoric of erosion of individual liberty, and America-centric view that stands in the way of any real social progress in this country. The refusal of the United States to ratify the Convention barely made the news. By the way, Somalia is the only other United Nations member country to fail to ratify the Convention.

The United States of America displays a dismal record of supporting human rights on the international stage. Joseph Wronka’s article “Little humility, please: human rights and social policy in the United States,” Harvard International Review, Annual, 1998 wrote “the United States is still the only country that vetoed the 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development.” Why does the United States aggressively seek to enforce human rights abroad but ignore its own failures in domestic human, social, and economic rights? Mr. Wronka suggests the following explanation:

The reason the United States refuses to sign on to these conventions is simply that numerous domestic policy changes would have to be made were the United States forced to measure up to various international human rights standards. Indeed, legislation in the United States would be drastically transformed under the auspices of the numerous human rights conventions that the United States has refused to ratify. Current laws pertaining to children, poverty, welfare, and crime would be seriously affected if the United States were to confront them with the international human rights norms embodied in the ROC, CEDAW, and the CESCR. . . . .” Id.

The United States presents two faces to the world when it comes to human rights. One face espouses support for human rights while the other secretly enables or openly supports human rights abuses. For example the Rwandan military personnel, many of whom were responsible for atrocities during the Rwandan genocide, were trained by American military personnel. The Department of Defense admitted that a torture manual was used by the Army’s School of the Americas to train officers of some of the worst regimes in Latin America.

It would cost a lot of money for the United States to ratify and implement United Nations Conventions, and it would have to admit that current Federal and State laws are inadequate to protect basic human, social and civil rights. The United States will never live up to minimal international standards on human rights until it changes its basic political, social, and economic Capitalist philosophy. We can not expect our government to act morally toward the international community until we as a society accept the basic immorality of Capitalism. Child labor makes good economic sense for American business, especially in the agriculture industry. Many of the children employed in the rich fields of America are the children of undocumented workers who can not complain about abuses to government authorities lest they or their parents face deportation. The fact that they or their parents may be in the country illegally is no excuse for exploitation and abuse. However, capitalist theory supports paying the least amount of money for the most amount of labor the capitalist can take from the worker. It seems unlikely that the United States of America will begin to promote the general welfare any time in the foreseeable future. The conservative element in our country seems to be willing to stop at nothing to prevent the recognition of human, social, and economic rights of individuals. Even the right of a child to freedom of expression is perceived as a threat to parental authority and national sovereignty. In America a person has the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” but possesses no right to food, affordable housing, medical care, and if you are a child harvesting vegetables and fruits for the dinner tables of Americans, no right to a fair wage, safe working conditions, or reasonable hours.

“The current state of domestic affairs- pervasive poverty and the lack of social equality- mandates US government action, for the United States cannot afford to espouse the protection of human rights on the international level while ignoring its own precarious state of human rights on the domestic level.”Wronka
Mr. Wronka is wrong in one respect: until the international community demands that the United States live up to the same standards it requires of other nations, it can afford to espouse and ignore. The United States will continue to espouse protection of human rights to the international community, and will continue to ignore domestic abuses of human rights in its own back yard until American society begins to value the human rights of the children, the women, the homeless, the homosexual, the minority, the poor, the sick, the old, the disenfranchised, and the immigrant. Until our society wakes up and admits its human and civil rights failures at home as well as abroad, America will remain figment of its own imagination.


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