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I Was a Child Farmworker

A Q&A with Norma Flores Lopez, director of the children in the fields campaign.

Meet Norma Flores Lopez, director of the Children in the Fields campaign of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, or AFOP, whose job it is to advocate for children who harvest and package the food Americans buy. Food prices here stay cheap because of the labor these children provide, and yet, as Flores Lopez describes, the kids themselves must pay a heavy cost to keep those prices low. Flores Lopez, who grew up in a family of migrant farmworkers from South Texas, spoke with me about her advocacy on behalf of farmworker kids. She tells here the story of her personal journey as a child farmworker, and the work that lies ahead to help make these kids safer and to make their lives better.

Note: Child farm labor is a little-discussed topic in the US, and readers should be advised that they may find some of the statistics and working conditions Flores Lopez describes to be shocking or upsetting.

MTS: Can you tell me about your work?

NFL: I work at the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP) and I’m the director of the Children in the Fields campaign. It’s an advocacy campaign on behalf of farmworker children who are trying to improve their lives.

We feel the best way to do that is to make sure they are working in safe environments, and make sure they have the same educational opportunities that any other child in America has.

Right now there are two separate laws when it comes to child labor laws in the US—there are some that cover all other industries, and a different set of laws when it comes to agriculture. And we’ve seen that [the agricultural exemption] exposes them to a lot of dangers that can hurt them in the long run and even cost them their lives.

We also have seen that a lot of these exemptions for farmworker kids, it makes the children more vulnerable to exploitation, and to wage theft and other types of abuses. Not only that, it also gets in the way of them being able to get their education.

And what we are seeing is that we have these kids that drop out of school and get trapped in this generational cycle of poverty in which they are having to work really long hours out in the field to be able to make ends meet to be able to feed their families, and have to be out there [for their careers] because they ended up not having the support they needed for their education.

So we have a grassroots component that allows us to work with kids in some of the biggest agricultural states and where there are seasonal and migrant farmworkers. And we are teaching the farmworker youth how to be the best advocates for themselves, to go out into their community and make change.

MTS: So tell me about what farmworker kids—what is their daily life like? Starting when the alarm goes off, or when their parents wake them up.

NFL: There are two different types of farmworkers: there’s the seasonal and the migrant.

So migrant farmworker kids typically have to get pulled out of school early, we’ve seen sometimes around April, and start school late, probably around October, back in their home state. So they leave their home state, their home base, and have to travel to various states to follow the harvest. States like Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, some of the big agriculture states. And they have to wake up probably around five in the morning, get ready to go out to work in the fields. They get dressed, and sometimes there will be a bus, or a van that the grower might provide, from the camps that the migrant farmworkers end up living in, which is housing that’s provided by the grower.