North America

The Associated Press
9 December 1997

Asian Children Work the Blueberry Fields of South Jersey
by Helen O'Neill, AP National Writer

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Summers, they strap red trays around their waists and pick berries until their hands turn blue.

Every blueberry season in southern New Jersey, the fields fill with Asian children, many from Philadelphia, many picking all day with their parents.

The children want the money and the farmers want fast hands -- cheap.

"I'm not so good as older kids, because I get only one or two trays,'' says Sopheap Hao, a chirpy 11-year-old, whose parents are Cambodian.

Her friends sometimes make $30 and $40 a day. Hao giggles and says the most she ever made was $6 or $8 because she gets distracted chasing turtles and playing with her friends.

"No one cares how long you work or what age you are,'' says Sokheng Yim, a legal worker at 14. "There are little kids in the fields.''

Sopheap and Sokheng laugh at the government inspectors from the U.S. Labor Department. They say the crew leaders, who organize the pickers for farmers, recycle forms for child workers all the time, using whatever documents they have for whatever children happen to be working.

The children earn $3 or $3.50 a tray, depending on the farm. One tray holds 12 pints of blueberries. If labor inspectors show up, the smaller children scatter and the older ones pretend to be adults.

The children say it's the best way to earn pocket money for designer T-shirts and jeans. They start around 6 a.m. and work as long as they want.

When the season ends, some of the children hang out on the stoop of a South Philadelphia row house, bemoaning the fact there is no work for them in winter. Last fall, their chatter was interrupted by a bullet fired from a passing car. The children scattered as the bullet bounced off the pavement.

Some social workers say the kids are better off working in the blueberry fields than hanging around the streets. Russell Clark says the same thing. He owns several hundred of acres of farmland in Hammonton, N.J. and sees lots of Asian workers from Philadelphia, some with their children.

"I've had workers with kids as young as 5 and 6 years old in the fields,'' Clark says. ``What else are they going to do with them? They're not really working. Some of them are just helping their parents.''

Clark rails against government interference, saying the workers would be better off if immigration and labor authorities left them alone, instead of hiding at the end of farm roads to try to catch them. "A lot of these workers are just trying to earn $20 to keep going for the day,'' Clark says. "The kids help out. Kids of 11 and 12 helping out their parents in the fields picking blueberries -- what's wrong with that?

"The real problem,'' he says, ``is the crew leaders making themselves rich by not paying the workers properly.''

Most farmers pay crew leaders for a certain amount of fruit. The crew leaders, in turn, pay the workers, keeping a percentage for themselves. But Clark says some crew leaders pay the workers less than they are supposed to. Clark says that is why he pays workers directly now.

While Clark and others insist that the children are better off in the fields, others say they are being exploited.

"In some cases, it's child abuse,'' says Wilder Rodriguez, a case worker with Rural Opportunities in Vineland, an outreach organization that attempts to get the children of migrant parents into education programs.

Rodriguez says he sees vanloads of children arriving at farms in the summer, including toddlers who are sometimes left in the vans while their parents work.


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