Bent over amongst the strawberry and grape harvests, dozens of children work on California farms. The Migrant Education Program (MEP), the division of the U.S. Department of Education that focuses on the children of migrant workers, estimates that U.S. schools lost 20,000 students this year to the fields.
Hueneme High School in Oxnard, California, which serves a large farmworker population, has fewer than 70 students enrolled in summer school, significantly fewer than the 1,000 students registered in the area with MEP.
“Since the first day of summer, almost all of them have gone to the fields to work and, regrettably, they must miss their classes,” said David Ramos, the MEP coordinator at Hueneme High School.
Americans are unaware of the exploitation faced by children in the fields and find it difficult to believe that the United States employs child labor in the fields, said Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition.
The Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits most child labor, but leaves out the agricultural sector. It is legal for parents to bring their children to work in the fields and for employers to hire them. A child can legally begin to work full time in agriculture at 12 years old.
Brian Centeno, director of the Migrant, Indian, and International Education Office of the California Department of Education, explained that the number of students enrolled with MEP has declined since 2005 as a result of the economic crisis. Previously, migrant workers with children could find jobs in the growing construction sector. Now, however, every family member must contribute to the household income.
“The majority [of underaged farm workers] are Hispanic. Not all of them are undocumented students, many are U.S. citizens who come from farmworker families and, like their parents, they must work,” said Centeno.
Farmworker and community organizer for California Rural Legal Assistance Jesús López said that the situation has always been difficult for families and their children. “Right now, it’s work or go hungry. The children don’t have the luxury of rest.”
Norma Flores, who now directs the Children in the Fields Program, part of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, began working in the fields at the age of seven. She worked 10 hours a day in the fields alongside her siblings. “At 12 years old, no child is ready to work,” she said.
Flores added that in addition to falling behind academically, underaged farmworkers face serious health risks.
Exposure to pesticides can cause both physical and cognitive problems. Accidents are common among minors.
In 2009 alone, more than 15,000 minors were injured while performing agricultural labor. In 2006, 3,600 minors, only a quarter of them above the age of 10, received injuries that will affect them permanently.
Last July, Wyatt Whitebread, 14, and Alex Pacas, 19, died in a grain bin accident in Mount Carroll, Illinois.
These deaths are not isolated cases. In the last five years, more than 690 minors have died while performing agricultural labor.
“A few cents’ higher salary for these children’s parents would get thousands of children out of the fields. We are not asking for anything extraordinary, only that the government apply the same child labor regulations in agriculture as in other sectors,” said Flores.