Many American Farm Workers Are Child Laborers, And It's Perfectly Legal

Published: Thursday, August 1, 2019 - 10:35am
Updated: Friday, August 2, 2019 - 9:31am
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LAUREN GILGER: The agriculture industry is a linchpin in our economy and literally provides us with much of the food on our tables. And it is supported by millions of workers who do the back-breaking work of harvesting it. And many of us don't realize hundreds of thousands of those workers are children. And the fact that they're doing this labor is perfectly legal. Independent journalist Valeria Fernández and Karen Coates got a grant from the International Women's Media Foundation to dig into this issue, and their resulting story, "The Young Hands That Feed Us," was recently published in Pacific Standard Magazine. I spoke with them both more about it and began by asking about the time they spent in the fields with these children. What is the work like?

KAREN COATES: You know, we had the luxury of showing up at the time we would choose. So, occasionally that was early in the morning but often it was in the middle of the afternoon just for a short period. And by then, the sun was blazing and it was so incredibly hot and the field was just vast. I mean, this is something that we heard over and over from farm workers describing their work. And it's just the roads look endless. And we also had the luxury of leaving when we chose. But they would continue for hours beyond that.

GILGER: And this work surprisingly, I think to me at least, often involves kids. I mean, well you read that and you think like, we don't allow child labor in the U.S. Like, this is not possible. But you're saying is perfectly legal.

VALERIA FERNÁNDEZ: Yeah, there's actually a lot of exemptions ... in U.S. laws. Specifically, when it comes to work in agriculture. So, it's perfectly legal for you to be 12 years old and be working in a farm of any size, for as long as your parents give permission. And ... actually, there's no limitation in the amount of hours that you could work. There is no overtime. And one thing that is important to clarify, that this is for as long as you're not missing school, right. So, a lot of these kids are working during the summer but this means that they would leave school early and come back to school late, really impacting their education.

GILGER: And are they normally, kind of, working with their families, is that how this works?

COATES: The children talked about that, how the idea was to stick together with the family. I mean it was a family job, a family affair and it was the idea that everybody was working together to help each other.

GILGER: Yeah, What kind of income are they able to make on this? Like, is this an industry where the minimum wage applies?

COATES: There are a lot of exceptions to what farm workers are supposed to be paid, depending on the size of the farm and all sorts of factors. But often it ends up that, farm workers are not paid minimum wage. Especially, if they're being paid by like a piece rate. So, and for children to under 16, if they're working by the piece rate, which is you know, calculated by say a crate of onions picked or bundles, you know, 100 bundles of cilantro, something like that. What they end up making often does not end up being minimum wage and often what children are making, goes into sort of the household income.

GILGER: And how extensive is this here in the U.S.? Can you get a sense of how many children are involved?

FERNÁNDEZ: Yeah, I mean we got different statistics, right. I think it's from the Government Accountability Office, we know that about half a million children work every year in agriculture. But what's interesting and the focus of the story is about these, you know, 300,000 or so children that migrate every year. And when we say migrate, we mean that they're working within the United States. So, they're going from the Rio Grande Valley, taking a journey that takes three days with their family to go work in Michigan, to go to work in Illinois, to work in Wisconsin, in these farms, you know, for several months, sometimes dropping out of school.

GILGER: So, let's talk about school and how this affects these kids lives. You visited one of the schools ... that has a lot of these kids in it but you also talked to some students who go in the summer. How likely is it that they are going to end up finishing their degree and how much harder is it for them?

COATES: It's a lot harder. So, children who work in agriculture and migrates, the schools have migrant counselors to sort of help them pave the way and then also connect them with education and schools and teachers in whatever area that they're migrating toward. But often, you know, kids fall through the cracks. And for one reason or another they drop out or they just don't finish the year and then they start falling behind and it's really hard for them to catch up.

FERNÁNDEZ: And, another thing that... was shared with us because there's this generational, you know, has been happening for a long time. The Migrant Program was created in the 1960s and we interview a migrant counselor, who actually was a migrant child himself. It's always been hard, you know, there's been a lot of discrimination towards these children and still even today. They're going to states where maybe they don't have a lot of population of color and they face a lot of hurdles trying to, you know, take tests or enroll in school and in between all the bureaucracy, sometimes they end up not being able to enroll and take those credits that they need in order to graduate in time.

GILGER: And beyond that, like, how dangerous of an industry is this for kids? I mean, you talk about what Human Rights Watch says about this industry and about child labor in this way, and what did you find there?

FERNÁNDEZ: Well, what we've found is that, more than half the work related deaths in children happened in agriculture, even though there's 6% of the number of children working.

COATES: And also an average of 33 children per day are injured in agricultural work. And although this wasn't the focus of our story on, a lot of these accidents happen say when very young children are driving tractors or machinery on farms. And it also happens among children who are in the fields who aren't actually doing the work. So, often parents will bring children to the field, if the parents are working but even if the kids are really young, there are cases of, like, children being run over by trucks, if they're you know hanging out around the cars and people just can't see them. Really sad, sad stories.


FERNÁNDEZ: And I mean, in any other industries you have to be at least 18 years of age to be operating some of this machinery. And in agriculture it's like, 16 years of age.

GILGER: So if you have an organization like Human Rights Watch saying, this is horrendous and should not exist. But it's the parents allowing or asking the children to participate in this. How do you sort of reconcile that in terms of, the parents’ rights in the family and also what those families need?

FERNÁNDEZ: None of the parents that we spoke with really enjoy or love having the children having to work. But it's a family effort, they helping each other. And the fact that these children are coming to work is also supporting, in a way, their education and providing a gateway or an opportunity for them to get out of this this type of work. So a lot of the money these kids make, go to school supplies, it goes towards their education and they have that understanding too. So, I think is a lot of the human rights organizations, what they're saying is, pay the parents a fair living wage, pay them overtime, give them benefits. They don't even have health care benefits. And then we can start talking because there wouldn't be the need for the children to come and work.

COATES: The consumer is part of this too. And economic research shows that as little as about $21 a year extra per consumer, could be enough extra money to pay farm workers enough that it would raise them above the poverty line.

GILGER: All right. Karen Coates and Valeria Fernández, their article, "The Young Hands That Feed Us," appears in Pacific Standard Magazine. Thank you both.

COATES: Thank you.

FERNÁNDEZ: Thank you very much.

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