By: Vashti Kelly, Program Manager
It is difficult to give an exact number regarding how many children are toiling in America’s fields because there is a great deal of word play with respect to what constitutes a farmworker child; however, I am referring to the thousands of youth working off the books or under assumed identities in order to make ends meet.
In past years AFOP along with other child labor advocates estimated that the number was somewhere between 400,000 – 500,000 farmworker children laboring in the fields of the United States. This number does not include children of farmers or operators who often participate in work activities on familial farms. Farmworker children fall into two different categories; accompanied youth, usually by a family member who is also a farmworker and unaccompanied youth, working and living without any relatives. Unaccompanied youth are amongst the most vulnerable of farmworker youth, the majority of which are foreign born and possess very little education.
Agriculture is one of the three most dangerous occupations in the United States, especially for children. The US child labor laws, intended to protect youth workers, do not apply to those working in agriculture. Farmworker youth, the majority of whom are US citizens, are not extended the same protections as youth employed in other industries. Youth who come from low-income, minority families, living in rural areas with limited economic and educational opportunities. However, farmworker youth are exposed to more hazards, experience higher rates of injury and death, partly due to the differences observed in youth behaviors and partly due to the lack of protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Farmworker youth in general are particularly susceptible to health problems associated with exposure to pesticides. Although, children under the age of 16 are not legally allowed to handle or apply pesticides they are continually exposed through improper personal protective equipment while working. Despite dealing with situations beyond their years unaccompanied youth are still youth and think as such, therefore taking the necessary precautions are not always in the forefront of their minds.
As mentioned, there are few legal protections in place to safeguard the health and welfare of farmworker youth. Exposures to pesticides, working in extreme circumstances and around dangerous equipment are just some of the harsh conditions that all farmworkers face. Wage theft is another issue that farmworkers contend with in the fields. Moreover, if they do not possess a social security number under which to earn salary, the risk becomes even greater. These struggles are only exacerbated for unaccompanied youth working in agriculture.
Oftentimes unaccompanied youth are preyed upon by those holding a higher station, such as crew leaders or other farmworkers who allow them to work under their name. These youth are faced to make decisions way beyond their years for the purpose of their own survival. Unfortunately, there is no adult to lookout for their well-being and the U.S. child labor laws fail them as well. And, until there is considerable reform regarding immigration and the double standard in the U.S. child labor laws, unaccompanied will continue to suffer the burdens of both adults and children in toiling in America’s fields.
Although, training alone will not solve all of the problems addressed here it is a key component which is why AFOP Health & Safety programs provides pesticide safety training to the farmworker community. And, in order to address the issue of inexperience and the fact that children are more susceptible to health issues related to pesticide exposure, AFOP Health & Safety has created a storytelling curriculum, Jose Aprende Sobre los Pesticidas, intended to aid in the education of a population that is altogether unseen and unprotected.