“It’s really hot. You think you’re going to die.” -Child farmworker, North Carolina
As the country has evolved from a largely agrarian society, and our population increasingly lives in urban centers, Americans have become mostly agriculturally illiterate, disconnected from their food, with a widening gap between farm and table. But as a rise in globalization began to awaken consumers’ consciousness of exploitative foreign labor practices that have a hand in creating the goods on which we depend — from clothing and sneakers, to mining and electronics. Domestically we have seen recent protests against companies like Wayfair for furnishing child migrant detention facilities, and Chipotle for contracting with vendors who violate OSHA rights. However, one domestic industry — agriculture — has been largely overlooked, and the children who work the fields and farms across the United States go unnoticed harvesting fruits and vegetables, tending land, raising livestock, cultivating crops, and feeding the nation.
For many white communities in this country, family farming has been a strong tradition. The farming community has long prided itself on values of independence and self-reliance and passing down that same strong work ethic to their children and future generations. But that image betrays a history of racist terror and exploitation. The agricultural system that once depended on the subjugation of African Americans now increasingly exploits impoverished Brown and Black migrant workers. The one constant has been relying on vulnerable communities of color to feed a country that turns a blind eye to them and the dangers they face.
Today, child farmworkers are among the most vulnerable workers in our country. The horrors of work conditions in the Industrial Revolution inspired a children’s rights movement and restrictions on child labor, child farmworkers have been largely exempt due to outdated exemptions from over 80 years ago.
As a result, under federal law, children as young as 12-years-old may be legally employed unlimited hours in the hot sun, exposed to heat, chemicals, and hazardous machinery, risking serious injury, illness, or death. With poor safety regulations and limited enforcement, children are exposed to health risks that may affect them for the rest of their lives. The average farmworker family income is extremely low, and most migrant farmworkers live in
extreme poverty, forcing their children to work to supplement incomes, especially where they
are paid by the piece. This perpetuates a cycle where families are kept in poverty for generations because the proven paths out — fair pay and a quality education — are too often out of reach.
Employers today benefit from employing children for the same reasons they have for centuries because they can pay children less, and they know that vulnerable communities, and especially children in vulnerable communities, are less likely to unionize and strike. With weak protections in child labor laws, and limited enforcement and low penalties for violating those laws, there is little incentive for employers to comply. And as opposed to pressure against individual corporations, it is nearly impossible to get the country to boycott entire goods. As labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta said while organizing with The United Farm Workers Association, “How do I stop eleven million people from buying the grapes?” The solution is strong labor laws that are meaningfully enforced.
To that end, in 2021, Lawyers for Good Government (L4GG) partnered with the Child Labor Coalition and L4GG’s network of pro bono attorneys to conduct a survey of child labor laws across 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The survey investigated state laws regarding age and hour restrictions, wages, safety requirements, penalties, and other child labor regulations. The purpose of this report is to share the findings of that research and recommend a model policy for state and local advocates to keep safe the vulnerable children who work across their states.
Read full report here.
Learn more about Lawyers for Good Government here.