Written by Nicole Willman, CFJC Food Policy Research Intern
They are the hidden work force picking your grocery store goods: migrant child farm laborers. Numbering up to half a million in the US, these children are notoriously vulnerable to injury and death and yet receive few legal protections.
The Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes child labor laws, has weaker regulations for agriculture than any other industry. Children as young as 12 years old (and sometimes younger) are subject to harsh work conditions and can legally work an unlimited number of hours as long as they work outside the school day.
Children are vulnerable to injury or death by sharp harvesting implements and heavy machinery due to lack of work experience and coordination. Their small, developing bodies are also more likely to succumb to heat stroke and pesticide poisoning.
In an interview conducted by Human Rights Watch, farm laborer “Andrea” recalled harvesting full time at age 12: “At first I thought it was cool but then when I worked actually it was miserable. I cried every day.”
In some cases, children younger than 12 are illegally hired to hoe fields and pick produce. Despite the health risks, low farm wages force families to rely on underage children to contribute financially.
In 2009, an ABC News investigation uncovered children as young as five years old picking blueberries at Adkin Blue Ribbon Packing Company in Michigan. With lax labor laws, company owners can afford to look the other way while children toil in the fields.
The outdated Fair Labor Standards Act, drafted in the 1930s, must be updated and enforced to ensure protections for child farm laborers, as it does for all other working children.
Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) has announced the reintroduction of the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE) in Congress. The CARE Act would effectively raise age and labor standards in the agricultural sector.
Continue reading about child farm laborers in the American Prospect article “Summer Homework: Plow the Field”.
Photo Source: ABC News Investigation: The Blueberry Children