I Was a Child Farmworker

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.

They might start their workday around, say, seven o’ clock in the morning, and are out there during these pretty warm months—especially during the summers. Having to be out there eight, ten, twelve hours a day. Sometimes seven days a week without any days off. Having to go three weeks of working out in the fields without any days off because it’s during the peak harvest.

And they are out there working—you know, it’s very hard, backbreaking work. And it’s hundred-degree weather with high humidity in some of those places. Having to work with sharp tools. Having to work around dangerous chemicals. Having to work around big heavy machinery. Having to perform at the same rate as their adult coworkers, having to keep up with them. And working –you know, picking different types of harvests.

Typically where we see kids is where there’s a lot of hand harvest, for example. And so they’ll be out there till really late, sometimes until they can’t see any more. And that’s when they’ll get pulled out of the fields.

Having to have their lunch breaks out there. Maybe they get a fifteen minute lunchbreak and that’s their only break for the whole day. They don’t get to go to a nice air-conditioned break room but instead have to go out there and eat it under the bus, inside the hot bus or even outside in the fields. They grab whatever food they were able to pack up for themselves, don’t have anywhere to wash their hands, sometimes they’re not even provided with water out there even though it’s required.

Sometimes they’re given water that’s been sitting out there for days. And just to be able to drink—you know sometimes they’re provided with bathrooms. They’re really lucky when they are.

And even for those folks that are provided with a bathroom, those are bathrooms that have not been, you know, cleaned out all season. Or even had the toilet paper replenished.

And so they are out there, these kids, working all day long and then having to go back home. This tends to overlap with them being in school. Even if, let’s say, school is in session, they might go to school but then end up going to work straight after in the fields. We’ve heard of kids working in packing houses till, say, one in the morning and then expected to go back to school and pay attention and have their homework done.

Day in and day out, even if they are feeling ill, they’re still out working in the fields. Because they know that they have to contribute to the family and by missing one day, [they lose] their wages that their family needs to be able to help put food on the table.

In regard to the seasonal farmworker kids, they have lives that are similar to that. They usually don’t have to leave their homes, because they are already living in an agricultural state. But they are having to balance school and trying to work out there in the fields.

So though the [seasonal] family does not follow the harvest, they are taking advantage of those seasons that are available to them, and then just hoping for the best during the off-season, during the winter months. We’ll hear of families, when there is no agricultural work for them to do, having to depend on the local food banks to feed their families.

But in any case, their education is going to be falling behind. Especially those migrant kids who are going to be maybe three months late when they go back home, and year after year after year of having to be moved between different states and different schools, and always getting behind. Some of them are so behind that they end up having no other option but to drop out of school.

MTS: Norma, what is your personal story? What was your life like growing up?

NFL: I grew up in a migrant farmworker family for many generations. I and my four sisters grew up working in the fields and having to pack up our house, usually in the month of June. Sometimes we did leave a little early. We left in April, for example, so instead of finishing up the school year in South Texas where we’re from, I would have to finish up the school year for example in Michigan, where I got enrolled for that last month.

And so we would always pack up our house and have to travel, everybody inside the pickup truck. Up to about ten of us having to pack up inside the pickup truck with all of our belongings and heading up north. For the first twelve years of my life we went to Indiana, to go work in the fields there.

And when we would get to Indiana we would go to some of the housing that was provided to us by the growers. And the housing—all of us, the ten-plus family members would pack up into this small house, you know sometimes many of us piled into a single bedroom. So I was sleeping in the living room. I remember there was a bed in the living room and other people sleeping on the floor.

I remember the shower was in the basement—and it was a creepy basement, it was not one of those nice finished ones, but one of those musty ones with mice, and you know—all kinds of insects running around, and even snakes that you would see down there. But that’s where we had to go shower.

The bathrooms were outhouses that were about 500 feet away from the house, and we had to walk to it if we wanted to be able to go to the bathroom. When it was pitch black outside, or really rainy, to go to the bathroom we had to go to the outhouse.

And we lived out there in the woods, in the middle of the orchard, and in the middle of the woods. And it was hard for us to be able to get into town. We had to drive quite a distance to be able to go find groceries.

Third grade is my first memory of having to work out there in the apple orchards. And my parents – it was bringing them some of the buckets, bringing them water, getting dropped off there after school, being out there with my parents on the weekends when they couldn’t find anybody to watch us.

And slowly the work kind of picked up more and more. By the time I was twelve years old, I was allowed to legally work to be able to have my own paycheck, which of course would go to my parents. I started working, again just in the apple orchards, and then went on to work detasseling corn in the Illinois cornfields.

And eventually we ended up moving to Iowa, where the housing was chicken coops that were converted into housing for the different farmworker families.

It was typical for us to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. All of us were expected to do so, because whenever you’re living in housing that’s provided to you by the farmer, every able-bodied person needs to be out there working because that’s why they were providing you with that housing. So there was this expectation to be out there whether you were sick or not.

And that’s kind of the environment that I grew up in. As I mentioned, sometimes going out early, and even coming in late—we wouldn’t get back to South Texas until October, sometimes even up until November.

And having to go show up late to school—and I would have gone to school in Indiana—but I would show up to school with my grades and they would say, “That’s great that you were doing so well in Indiana. Unfortunately these grades don’t translate,” because each state has its own school system and its own requirements.

And so when I would be down in South Texas, I would have to make up a lot of schoolwork.

But it could happen that I would walk into the classroom and the teacher would say to me, “You unfortunately will not be able to make up big projects that are part of your grade. And so therefore there’s no way you can pass.” So essentially I was failed on my very first day of just getting there.

That is very very tough and discouraging and we do see it a lot with other farmworker kids. But you know—I kept pushing on it and eventually I was able to get my high school diploma. That was thanks to a lot of support from these programs that existed that would help farmworker families that I participated in to get that extra support and tutoring to get my high school credits that I needed to graduate. And so I graduated, went on to college, and eventually found my way to working for this nonprofit to be able to help other farmworker kids that are in my situation today.

MTS: OK. Let’s back out to the big picture again. How many children are we talking about and what are their ages?

NFL: There are as many as 500,000 children who work in agriculture. Out of those kids, in the US it is allowed for 12 year olds to be working out in the fields as long as school is not in session, they are allowed to go out and work an unlimited amount of hours.

Now, there are kids who work on their parents’ farm. And for those particular children, they don’t have any restrictions. They can do any type of job on a farm at any age. But the expectation is that those parents are going to watch out for their children. And that’s why the law allows for that parental exemption.

But the other kids who don’t have that path to one day owning their own farm, whose parents are farmworkers, and they are out there to be able to help their parents make ends meet—those are the ones we are the most worried about. And so these kids allowed to work out there at the age of 12, and to work an unlimited amount of hours, and that’s what we see—from sunrise to sunset those kids are really pushed to their limit.

And at the age of 16, children can start doing work that we know is dangerous, hazardous work. In every other industry these children would have to wait until they were 18 years old.

Yet we see in agriculture, our laws permit that to happen, despite the fact that we know that there are high rates of these kids getting injured. And there’s also the long-term effects of being exposed to many chemicals: we’ve seen links to Alzheimers, to defects in their development.

And so for –when it comes to pesticides, right now the EPA regulates that for an adult male. That’s what the regulations are based on. What would be “safe” levels for an adult male. They’re not taking into consideration women, and they are definitely not taking into consideration a twelve year old child, who is just developing. And the effects that that has on those children.

MTS: Last question. What policy priorities will you be pushing for in the next administration?

NFL: So last year, in September of 2011, the Secretary of Labor introduced updates to the list of hazardous orders, which is the list of dangerous jobs that children should not be allowed to do.

She tried to introduce that, and then unfortunately those rules were pulled. Because there was mounting pressure from the agribusiness industry. Not the folks that are moms and dads owning and operating a small farm, but these huge corporations that benefit from having kids working out there in their fields.

So we tried get this list of rules updated, because it was mostly focused on farmworker kids and keeping kids from doing things like working in tobacco fields, where right now it is allowed for 12 year olds to work in these tobacco fields and be exposed to nicotine levels as high as the equivalent of 36 cigarettes.

There’s also updates like making sure that these kids aren’t working to heights of up to 20 feet. Those kids have no training, no safety equipment, but are allowed to work at heights of 20 feet. Had those rules been updated, it would have been changed now to six feet. [The difference between ] falling from 20 feet or falling from six feet can make such a huge difference for a child, especially when there is no safety equipment or training involved.

So these were some real common ssense changes that we were hoping for. But those rules were pulled in April of 2012.

So what we want to do with this next administration is to work with the Department of Labor to focus on these particular changes that would most benefit these particular kids who are farmworkers, and see if there’s ways for us to be able to push that.

Of course we will continue to push for the CARE Act, the Childrens Act for Responsible Employment, which is a bill that has been introduced for the past ten years, and what that would do would be to equalize the child labor laws, so that these kids, these farmworker children, have the same opportunities and protections that every other child has in America.

Then of course we have our grassroots campaigns that are looking at some of the local issues and finding solutions. In North Carolina in particular, we are looking at the state level to outlaw 12 year olds working in those tobacco fields, as that’s where you’ll see a lot of these kids working. So we’re also trying to not just work with the federal agencies, but also at the state level and hopefully grow support that will reach all the way up to Washington DC.

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