Many Latino children toil in fields at high cost
August 29, 2001
This morning, most kids are on their way to school, but many Latino children are on their way to the fields.
In 1999, the Associated Press ran a series on underage migrant kids from 16 states. Some child workers were as young as 4 years old, and they were harvesting chili peppers in New Mexico. In Florida, the Associated Press's investigative team located an 8-year-old who was already a three-year veteran of string-bean harvests.
Migrant families are overwhelmingly people of color. More than 70 percent of the migrant-labor force are of Latino roots, according to the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC). Many Mexican parents still speak Spanish only, and few are bilingual. Their children often serve not only as field hands but also as interpreters. And many kids are on their own. Last year, more than 60,000 children worked in the fields alone, according to unreleased U.S. Department of Labor figures obtained by the Associated Press. In many cases, their parents were not residing in the United States. Although Congress enacted child-labor laws more than 60 years ago, a lot agribusinesses are exempt. Many of these laws apply only to employers who engage in interstate commerce and sell more than $500,000 annually. What's more, because some laws permit parents to "employ" their children in farm tasks, no matter how dangerous, agribusinesses sometimes encourage parents to allow their children to pitch in during harvest. And many parents need the money their kids can bring in.
But they don't earn much. In Florida, adult orange pickers are paid 55 cents per box. This price has not changed in the last 25 years, according to the Educational Resources Information Center. Children are paid much less. On average, migrant families earn about $6,000 to $8,000 per year, according to Department of Labor figures.
Between 200,000 to 800,000 children and teens work in the fields yearly, saving growers about $155 million, according to a recent report by Douglas L. Kruse, a professor of labor relations at Rutgers University who has conducted several studies for the Department of Labor.
In California, where some 900,000 field hands harvest much of the U.S. supply of vegetables, agribusinesses earned $27 billion in revenues in 2000.
The work is often hazardous.
Children who work in the fields are especially susceptible to many unsafe working conditions. Farmers spray more than 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides annually, increasing the chances of pesticide poisoning, which has been linked to cancer, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Children exposed to pesticides are more likely to develop leukemia, brain tumors, lymphoma and soft-tissue sarcomas.
We need to protect these kids. Consumers ought to boycott goods procured by illegal child labor, and the U.S. government should bring criminal charges against employers who repeatedly hire kids and put them in dangerous working conditions. Congress should eliminate exemptions that permit children to perform adult tasks in farm work. And we need to push for decent wages so that parents are not forced to make their children work in order to help the family survive.
Children should be in school, not toiling in the fields.
Andy Porras is a writer living in Sacramento, Calif. He can be reached at email@example.com.