By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
NCL staff woke up to find that Saturday’s New York Times had a front page above the fold story about one of NCL’s core issues: getting farmworker kids out of the field and into school. NCL’s roots, going back to 1899, were focused on eradicating child labor and sweatshop labor. Florence Kelley is largely responsible for advocating, legislating, and litigating most child labor out of existence in the United States.
However, a loophole in landmark worker protections the Fair Labor Standards Act, which prohibited most child labor in the United States, had an exception for agricultural workers. Farmworker kids are often victims of a cycle of poverty – they are pulled out of school while their family migrates for work and end up working 10-hour days in stifling heat exposed to pesticides, sun stroke, lack of water and toilets, and other hardships that come with working in the fields. Many have such a spotty academic record they can’t graduate from high school, thus perpetuating the burden of low-wage jobs and no chance of advancement through education.
Some of the parents quoted in the article feel ambivalent about the law. They want their kids with them – or working – because they need their pay, but they also know the best place for them is school. But that was true 100 years ago when Florence Kelley ran the League. If you look at the problem of child labor from that prism, keeping children out of the fields is ultimate the best solution.