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Child-Labor: Children in the Fields

Updated on January 9, 2013

Child Labor in the U.S.

Agriculture is the 3rd most dangerous industry in terms of injuries and fatalities in the United States and yet it is allowed to legally use child labor. According to the Centers for Disease Control's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), this industry is open to children as young as 12 years of age to legally work unlimited number of hours outside of school. Like adults, these children are allowed to handle dangerous farm equipment and are exposed to dangerous pesticides leading to serious illnesses, injuries and even death.

Agriculture work is mostly done by migrant farmworkers and machines. Migrant farmworkers are people, sometimes whole families, who work in agriculture. They follow the crop and move from place to place in search of migrant farm work as needed. It is difficult work and it pays very little. Farm-workers and their children are continuously exposed to dangerous pesticides and they work long hours in all kinds of weather

Did you know that farm-worker youth are excluded from the "hazardous work" protections imposed in all other industries? Has anyone stopped to ask why this is? Are you aware that American youth, born and raised here in the United States, work the fields and pick the very fruits and vegetables we find in our local grocery stores? Whole families are driven to work the fields due to poverty and low income jobs at home. Out of need, families take on jobs that will allow for children as young as 8 years old to work without being noticed or found out. Question is, who picked the fruit and vegetables in your kitchen?

Growing up as a migrant farmworker child 40 plus years ago, I see that things do not look any different now than they did back then. On the contrary, things have not changed at all. It is time to take a good look at what is REALLY happening in America. I recommend that you watch the video below from start to finish and that you have an open mind. Know that the United States has long criticized other countries for using child labor, and yet, let's not go too far, let's take a closer look at what is going on right here in the United States, in our own back yard. It's no secret, it's legalized child labor.

US-Born Children Pick our Fruits and Vegetables

Blind Ignorance

There are many people in the United States who I can say are ignorant of what is going on in the United States with respect to migrants. They have no earthly idea what the definition is for the word "migrant." Many think that migrants are people who come from Mexico and that they come to take our jobs or that they come to live off the government as if the United States government was handing out checks, food stamps, medical discounts, free insurance and so forth to undocumented individuals. That is so not true. People who come from Mexico are "immigrants" not "migrants." Migrants are people who work in agriculture and follow the harvest. Can people who come from Mexico be both immigrants and migrants? Yes. If they come to the United States and work in agricultural and pick the crops that help feed America, then they are both migrant and immigrant.

Here is a true story about an ignorant millionaire. The nameless millionaire was asked for a couple of hundred dollars for a few $100 scholarships for migrant students. His reply was, "I'd rather give $25,000 to a battered women's shelter than to give money to people who live off the government. What? Now, I have to pay for their education too? Their parents should be put in jail for using them to work in the fields." His submissive wife, a Mexican national who married him ten years ago, answered saying, "We never sponsor any organizations of any kind." In my opinion, here is the perfect example of how "blind ignorance" is bliss and it is all due to self-deception.

I would like to clarify one thing. Migrant children do NOT have a choice. That is a huge misconception. They work in the fields, because they belong to a family unit. They have been taught that to work for the betterment of the whole (the family) is a good thing and it is an honorable thing to do. Battered women, well, they always have a choice. The children do not see working in the fields as a bad thing. On the contrary, they see working in the fields as a good thing for they are helping their family and they are able to see the fruits of their labor. They see it as a means for survival. It is a means to buy food, pay bills, pay their property taxes, buy clothes, school supplies, shoes etc. They are not expecting a hand out from the government. It is only survival for them, their siblings and their parents to work in the fields. That might mean that they will be able to perhaps add insullation to their house when they return home and yet, it might mean that they might be able to add another room, perhaps cabinets, or even a bathroom. For some families, it might mean building a nice frame house to live in, an improvement from living in shacks and using any means to stay warm in the winter, sometimes having to use clothes, blankets and such to plug the holes in the walls.

Parents sometimes have no choice, due to their limited education, but to ask the help of their children and yet they are criticized by many for trying to do what they can to get ahead. The question is, what parents do not want their children to get a good education? All migrant parents want to see their children break the migrating cycle. It is a fact that if a migrant child goes to college and gets a good job, he/she will be breaking the migration cycle and that child will be able to change the lives of the rest of the family. That is reality and that I can vouch for from first-hand experience. All migrant children want is to get ahead in life, a chance to fullfill their dreams. They have dreams of becoming educators, lawyers, nurses, doctors and many do go on to fullfill their dreams. Unfortunately, many will block their migrant memories and forget where they came from, and yet others will scream out for fairness for the defenseless children who continue to be modern day slaves in our great America.

What 12 year old is allowed to work in an airconditioned business? None, why? Because the law says that these children are not old enough, but they can go and work unlimited hours picking fruits and vegetables in 110 degree weather or 50 degree weather. Is this fair? Is this equality? No, this is discrimination. The child labor law needs to be revamped. It needs to provide for parents to earn more for their hard work. If parents were to get decent training within their local communities and a decent job, they would not have to work in the fields and have to expose their children to back breaking labor, pesticides and other dangers.

Farmworker Youth Opportunity Programs

In an effort to draw more attention to this under-served population, I am posting this information to raise public awareness about the hardships faced by migrant farm-worker youths in the United States. I invite you to support the efforts of organizations like AFOP - the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs and Migrants in Action which aim at improving federal standards concerning child labor in agriculture and aim at helping to promote the importance of educational opportunities for these migrant youth.

It is the goal of organizations like AFOP - the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs and Migrants in Action to engage the public in a way that will help inspire changes for a brighter future for America's migrant and seasonal farm-worker children who pay a very high price for the little money they actually earn by working in the fields. The United States Department of Labor estimates that these children earn less than $1,000 per year. They do not only sacrifice their health, but they also sacrifice their education. More than half of these migrant farmworker youth end up dropping out of school sacrificing their goals and their dreams.

Rights of Migrant Farm-workers

Barack Obama declared March 31st a National Holiday for Cesar E. Chavez. Cesar E. Chavez (Mar. 31, 1927 - Apr. 23, 1993) was a Mexican-American labor leader who used non-violent methods to fight for the rights of migrant farm workers in the southwestern United States.

Cesar Chavez advocated for the rights of migrant and seasonal farm-worker families to get them fair treatment through increased wages and improved and safe working conditions. He organized strikes and nation-wide boycotts of agricultural products until the legislators voted to make laws to help improve the lives of migrant farmworkers.

Chavez's motto "Si, se puede" (translates to "Yes, it can be done.") and proves that things CAN change for the migrant farmworker and his children. Cesar Chavez changed millions of lives. Let us all follow in his footsteps and let us support educating the Children in the Fields, the children who work so hard to help feed America.


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