Did a Child Pick Your Strawberries?
Meet Luz, a 9-year-old American who worked 13-hour days in the fields, skipping school and poisoned by pesticides. Zama Coursen-Neff on the shameful fate of hundreds of thousands of kids.
“Luz” was 9 when she began working in the fields. Her employer paid her not by the hour, but according to how much fruit she picked. On many days, she would not even stop and rest. “We keep on going because if we were to sit down and take a break we’d make even less,” she told me during a Human Rights Watch investigation. Even so, Luz earned well below minimum wage.
By the time she was a teenager, Luz was often working 13-hour days, when she wasn’t in school. Her employer gave her no choice about hours. “No one can leave. They block the exits and say everyone has to help out.” She fell behind in school and said most of her friends had dropped out. She was often sick from exposure to pesticides. “You could see it all around, and you were breathing it. … My stomach was always heaving. Every single day.”
The conditions Luz describes are typical of child laborers I have interviewed in India, El Salvador, Indonesia, and other poor countries around the world. Luz, however, now 18, works in the United States.
Click Below to Hear American Child Farm Workers Describe Their Lives
For hundreds of thousands of child farm workers, the U.S. might as well be a developing country. These children aren’t working on their families’ farms. They work for hire, hoeing cotton and sorghum in scorching heat, cutting collard greens and kale with sharp knives, and stooping for hours picking zucchini and cucumbers. Luz began picking strawberries in Florida, then started migrating in the summers to Michigan to pick blueberries. Like Luz’s friends, at least 45 percent of child farm workers never finish high school. Without an education, they face a lifetime of back-breaking work and poverty-level wages. And while most of these children, shockingly, are in the United States legally, those who are undocumented are especially vulnerable to exploitation from employers who know they won’t complain.
Over the last year, I have interviewed dozens of children who did farm work in 14 states across the country. Most began working full-time at age 11 or 12 on days they weren’t in school—and some on days when they should have been. They said that 10-hour days were typical, and during peak harvest season, they sometimes worked 14 hours or more. Some told me that at the end of the day, they were so exhausted they could barely change out of their clothes before falling asleep.
Shockingly, these conditions are perfectly legal under U.S. law, which allows children to work on farms at far younger ages, for far longer hours, and under more hazardous conditions than in other jobs. American teenagers have to be at least 14 to get even a cashier’s job at McDonald’s, where on a school day they are only allowed to work for three hours. But to pick the food that is served in fast food restaurants, children can work at age 12 for unlimited hours, day or night—as long as they don’t work during school hours. Even that rule often goes unenforced.
These disparities in the law are even more disturbing considering that agriculture is one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. Working with sharp tools and heavy machinery, exposed to dangerous pesticides, climbing up tall ladders, lugging heavy buckets and sacks, children get hurt and sometimes they die. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the risk of fatal injuries for farm workers ages 15 to 17 is 4.4 times that of other young workers.
Despite the risks and grueling work, many child farm workers feel compelled to help their parents pay the bills. According to the most recent data, the average adult crop worker makes less than $13,000 a year, leaving many farm worker families desperately poor. Better enforcement of minimum-wage laws would reduce the pressure many farm workers feel to take their children into the fields. But the fact that exploitative child labor in agriculture is legal also presents it as a legitimate choice for parents, children, and employers. Some parents later regret their decision when they see its toll on their children’s health and education. In Texas, one mother said to me, “I tell my daughter, ‘I’m so sorry I stole your childhood from you.’”
The United States’ failure to protect child farm workers not only puts children at risk, but is deeply hypocritical. The U.S. spends over $25 million every year—more than all other countries combined—to eliminate child labor in other countries, yet it tolerates exploitative child labor in its own backyard.
For over a decade, members of Congress have repeatedly introduced legislation to update U.S. laws and eliminate the dangerous double standard that puts child farm workers’ health, safety, and education in jeopardy. Such a bill is pending now. But child farm workers like Luz have no powerful lobbyists, and their concerns are not considered politically pressing.
As the new growing season starts, children like Luz are already leaving school to pick lettuce, spinach, asparagus, and other crops. Without action in Washington, their futures will not be much better than those of children toiling in the developing world.
Take Action: Click here to learn more about the CARE Act, which would make it harder for the agriculture sector to exploit child labor.