Interview explores the scandal of child labor in modern U.S. agriculture
Two reports have recently been published that investigate child labor in agriculture here in the fields of North Carolina: “Tobacco’s Hidden Children”, produced by Human Rights Watch and “Safety and Injury Characteristics of Youth Farmworkers in North Carolina: A Pilot Study” from Wake Forest University.
Both studies confirm the dangers posed to children in commercial farming: exposure to toxic pesticides, nicotine poisoning, heat stress, among other health risks that may continue to impact them into adulthood.
Current child labor laws prohibit children from working before 14 years of age. However, the agriculture industry is exempt from these laws and the minimum age is set at 12. With parental consent, children as young as 10 are permitted to work in the fields. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibits anyone under the age of 16 to work in conditions deemed hazardous by the US Secretary of Labor, but neither tobacco work nor pesticide handling has been labeled as such. The result is that 12 year olds who cannot legally buy cigarettes are legally exposed to highly toxic levels of nicotine over extended periods of time as they work the tobacco fields each day.
This summer I was selected to intern with the nonprofit organization Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF) which engages students from all backgrounds to work on improving the conditions under which farmworkers work and live. We are placed with partner organizations across the southeast that offer health and legal services to farmworkers, conduct research, and promote community organizing.
Over the last several months, I have met men and women with their own stories of working in the fields as children. While some of these individuals continue to work in agriculture, others have since moved on to secure other careers or attend college. One of my fellow SAF interns traveled from Texas to participate in this year’s program. Yessie Bustos graduated in the spring from St. Edward’s University with a degree in Global Studies with a concentration in Latin America. Yessie has also worked in the fields since the age of 8. This summer, I had the opportunity interview Yessie and I was able to hear her perspective on working in the agriculture industry as a child:
Q. When and why did you start working? Was it your choice?
A. At the age of 8 years old I started working in cotton fields in Arkansas. When I was12-years old I started working in blueberry fields in Michigan, as well as working in the processing plant and various nurseries. I come from a family of migrant farmworkers; we were all expected to work at some point. I am not entirely sure why I started at a much younger age. But growing up I learned that we worked to help pay for bills, school clothes and supplies and also to learn a lesson. Both my parents met in the fields, they both knew how hard the life of a migrant farmworker was and didn’t want for that life to be their children’s. They made us work to show us exactly what was out there without a proper education and to motivate us to stay in school.
Q. What was your typical job and what would be a typical workday?
A. I worked mostly in the blueberry industry more than I did in cotton.
During the [blueberry] picking period our start time varied. Sometimes we entered the fields as early as 7:00 am or as late at 9:00 am and picked berries all day till after 6:00 pm. It seems easy, but imagine carrying a gallon bucket tied around your waist, and the more berries in it, the more it weighs and the tighter the string pulls on your hips. On days that it was hot, the soil would suck the air out of you and you would actually feel as if you were suffocating while picking the bottom berries. Mid-season, worms and Japanese beetles would be more active, often stinging you and getting inside your clothes and hair.
The second period was the processing, when most workers were shifted into the processing plant; la bodega. In here I did almost everything from making boxes, putting liners, feeding boxes to the machine, weighing the final product, stacking 30 pound boxes on pallets, grading in the line, washing lugs, and receiving incoming fruit. Again, our start time varied; if the season was slow I would start at 8:00 am and work till 8:00 pm. If it was a good season I would start as early as 5:00 am and work as late as 11:00 pm. I worked 7 days a week for 2-3 months straight. It was rare I got days off and my parents would not like it; the idea was that we came to Michigan to work, so it did not make sense to ask for a day off and lose a day’s worth of work.
Q. Do you think it was suitable for someone your age?
A. At the age of 8-9 working in cotton fields was not suitable to someone my age. Late in the season, the cotton plants would grow so tall they would cover me. Often because of the humidity I felt suffocated in the middle of a field unable to breathe. Rows were long, some as long as a mile; walking through them completely covered and unable to reach up for air was difficult.
Working 60+ hours, 7 days a week, doing nothing but picking blueberries all day and all week, or working in the barn does not seem suitable. I remember one time working 120 hours in a week. My body was so tired; I kept walking into walls, fell asleep on a toilet, and had bags under my eyes so dark you’d think I rubbed on eye shadow. My feet had blisters from walking up and down so much, but even then when asked if I wanted to leave early, I knew I couldn’tsay yes.
Yes, it is true that I often feel I was robbed of a childhood because all I remember doing was working. At the time I hated it, I did not understand why I was always working while all my friends did fun stuff. However, I also believe I would be a different person had I not worked in the fields. I developed a strong work ethic and understanding that life is not always fair.
Q. Did you ever face any health issues at work or due to work?
A. When I was about 14-years old I was diagnosed with entomophobia, the fear of insects, something you find in the fields all the time. Every day, it never failed; I would get a panic/anxiety attack because of the bugs. I also have heat anxiety, which I have dealt with since I was small.
Q. Did you ever face any injustices (wages, treatment, etc.)?
A. When I first started picking blueberries, I would get paid by the bucket, which would be around $1.00 or $1.25 per bucket. I would pick at most three buckets per hour, meaning I was being paid $2-3 an hour. As a child I didn’t understand how it was possible that I worked 60+ hours a week and received a check that was $50-$150 at the most.
Our crew leader always said sexist comments. I remember one time I took a bite out of a sandwich that had mayo; I was so disgusted by the mayo that I ran to throw it out. As he saw me run he said something to my mom about me being pregnant, simply because I was running to throw up. At the time I was probably 15 or 16 years old. For many years I had to work with him, and he was never fired or talked to even though I made a complaint. I was usually the youngest employee, and I often overheard guys converse about me in inappropriate ways. I was a victim of sexual harassment, and it angered me that nothing was done about it.
Q. Do you think children should be allowed to work in the fields? Should there be a minimum age? What types of protections should they have?
A. I do believe that working in the fields at a young age gave me great work ethic and allowed me to mature. However, a proper age for a child to work in the fields in my opinion should be 14 years old in non-hazardous occupations and maybe 16-17 in hazardous occupations. I believe that hours should be regulated, before 17-18 they should be given minimum of two days off. Children work in fields to help support their families, if you took away their ability to work, it would only hinder the family’s financial state. Regulating the amount of work that a child can work per week would keep the child safe while still allowing them to help their family.
For more information on youth farmworkers in North Carolina, go to these websites:
Lisa DeAlmeida has returned for her fall semester at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC. Yessie Bustos has, happily, accepted a paralegal position with Legal Aid of North Carolina in Raleigh.