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Program seeks to rid fields of child labor

For nine months a year, Francisco Garza works on farms in Central and South Florida harvesting cucumber, tomato and lettuce. On $170 a week, he feeds and clothes his family of five and helps his parents in Mexico.

Some weekends, he takes his 7-year-old son to work.

To Garza, 28, it's a matter of economics: He simply cannot afford to hire a babysitter or place his son in day care. His family needs the money.

"If we get a raise, we wouldn't see our children working the fields," he said. "We're in very bad conditions here. We take our kids to the fields and tell them, "Work hard so you can earn the shoes you want.' "

In a five-month investigation last year, The Associated Press found 165 children working illegally in 16 states. In Florida, the AP interviewed 28 children picking tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, cauliflower, peppers, okra and fern, all in apparent violation of the state child labor law. More than a dozen were working in apparent violation of the more lax federal child labor law.

By Garza's account, little has changed since the federal government began making a visible attempt to ensure that the only time America's children are in the field is when they're at play.

Garza, a Mexican national whose visa allows him to work in this country until 2000, said children are put to work in the hopes that their parents will earn more money for harvesting more crops. Farm owners also benefit.

"If a child is working, he doesn't use his Social Security number. He uses the father's. That's two people working for one," said Garza, who works in Homestead and Palmetto for nine months and in South Carolina from August to October.

The problem of child labor in agriculture is not unique to South Florida, which grows much of the nation's winter vegetables and such tropical fruits as limes, papaya, mangoes, star fruit, lichee and pummello, the original grapefruit.

After the AP series, the Labor Department began dispatching inspectors to 50 of the nation's farmlands under Operation Salad Bowl, launched this spring to enforce child labor laws.

In Texas, inspectors last month discovered 26 children working for nine farm labor contractors on six farms. In the Rio Grande Valley near the U.S. border with Mexico, they found children as young as age 6 working the land. Six Texas growers were fined a total of $34,200 for employing children, a violation of the federal child labor requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

"Young children should not be working in the fields, even if they are with a parent," said Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman. "Children should be doing homework, not farm work."

Trying to ensure no child ever works in America's fields will remain a problem for the foreseeable future as long as there are workers like Garza, who must provide for his wife and 1-, 3- and 7-year-old children on $8,900 a year. From those wages, he also sends $200 to his parents each month.

"Child labor in agriculture derives from persistent poverty and lack of affordable, available day care facilities . . . and persistent poverty is the product of low wages and chronic underemployment," said John Fraser, acting administrator of the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division.

"There's no obvious answer to either of those questions."

The day care issue weighs heavily on the migrant workers as well _ people such as Guadalupe Banda, 33, who works about three months in Florida and the rest of the time in Wisconsin.

"The ones (day care centers) we have here are very full," Banda said. "We asked for aid to build more day cares and that way bring more jobs to more people."

Add to this mix an emerging trend in child labor _ teenagers smuggled into America to work on farms _ and the problem seems insurmountable.

"The true children here working in the fields of Miami-Dade County are those undocumented teenagers who are smuggled into the country," said Steven Kirk, executive director of the non-profit Everglades Community Association. "That's the new child labor problem here in South Florida."

The Migrant Farm Worker Justice Project of Florida Legal Services, which provides non-profit legal aid to the poor, was in total agreement.

"It's a terrible situation to be 15 years old, to be in a strange country without your parents and to be in debt $1,000 to the smuggler who got you across the border," said Rob Williams, the group's director.

Federal officials planned a public campaign urging major commercial consumers of agricultural products, such as supermarket chains, to "be as concerned and careful about the production of their supplies as they are about the quality," Fraser said.

Herman and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman were in South Florida recently visiting farms and seeking ways to raise farm workers' wages and increase from 30 the average number of weeks workers are employed each year.

A migrant worker averages $8,000 to $10,000 a year, though some workers can earn up to $13,500 a year and others make as little as $5,000 annually, Kirk said.

Garza, who is on public assistance, pays $65 a month for a three-bedroom apartment at Everglades Agricultural Community. Managed by the Everglades Community Association, it offers subsidized homes _ up to three-bedroom duplexes _ for migrant farm workers and their families.

Besides Operation Salad Bowl, President Clinton is seeking in his federal budget request for fiscal 1999 $50 million above current funding levels to make public schooling available to up to 100,000 more migrant children.

Clinton also wants $5 million more for job training to "lead to better employment opportunities and help break the generational cycle of migratory farm labor," according to the Labor and Agriculture secretaries.