Kids need protection. They need protection at home, school, and when they are old enough at work. Not all kids receive the same level of protection. Kids working in farm work do not have the same child labor protection as the sixteen-year-old selling you popcorn at the movie theatre. Kids working in farm work can be as young as 12 years old and in some cases as young as ten years old. They work in the same working conditions as adults. They work in the hot sun, digest pesticides, vulnerable to injury, and death.
Federal law allows for farmworker children to work longer hours during school days and with no limitation on hours when school is not in session. Kids working at the grocery store have daily and weekly hourly limits to prevent exploitation. Farmworker kids have fewer restrictions. Kids work a few hours before school, causing them to miss meals, feel tired in class, and return to the farm after school. Farmworker kids acknowledge that missing school causes them to fall behind their peers. More than half of farmworker children don’t graduate from high school.
Compared to adults, children are at greater danger when pesticides exposure has occurred. Kids weigh less, and their composition responds to pesticide toxicants differently than adults. Pesticides stay in kids longer and cause damage into adulthood. Children interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had received no training about the dangers of pesticides, safety measures, or what to do in case of exposure.
Many countries have banned kids under 18 from working in tobacco, but not in the United States. The Humans Rights Watch asked 26 sixteen and seventeen-year-olds working on U.S. tobacco farms if they have been sick. 25 out of the 26 reported symptoms of acute nicotine poisoning. In damp conditions, kids working in tobacco fields consume nicotine amounts equal to 36 cigarettes.
COVID-19 added pressure to children farmworkers, as their parents fall infected and cannot work. The children become the breadwinners for the family falling behind in school with few supports to catch up.
School as an equalizer in America. Farmworker children in fields and not in school continue a life of poverty. Their parents, in surveys, say they sacrifice in farm work so their kids can have a future. However, their children in the fields have less protection and fewer rights than any other child in America. Where their children are expected to work as adults, negotiate adult relationships and advocate for themselves. These are skills many adults struggle with, never mind 12- 16-year-olds.
At your next dinner, I ask you to include a prayer for 500,000 kid farmworkers estimated across the United States, it is likely the small hands of a child harvested your fruits and vegetables you enjoy.
For further reading on farmworker, child labor see articles below
Children in the fields campaign: https://afop.org/cif/#table23
Dying on the farm: https://www.typeinvestigations.org/investigation/2013/11/14/dying-farm/
Why are Children working in American tobacco fields? https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/why-are-children-working-american-tobacco-fields/
For some California teens, school closures led to work in the fields: https://calmatters.org/children-and-youth/2020/06/california-teens-school-closures-migrant-farmworkers-fields-coronavirus/