The invisible child laborers in our fields
Norma Flores López, Governance and Development/Collaboration Manager at East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, joins Reid Maki, NCL’s director of child labor issues and coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition for a dialogue about the plight of workers on America’s farms. Joining them are two young women that have worked in fields as child laborers, Araceli and Jazmin.
The invisible child laborers in our fields
Reid: Hello everyone. I’m Reid Maki. I’m the Director of Child Labor Advocacy with National Consumers League and I’m also the Coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, which NCL co-chairs and co-founded. We’re here today to discuss child labor in U S agriculture with three amazing young women who spent their childhoods working in the fields. I’d like you all to introduce yourselves, maybe tell us a little bit about where you’re from.
Jazmin: Hi, my name is Jazmin. I am from a small town called Alamosa, Colorado, and I attend Adams State University and my major is in business healthcare administration with a minor in Spanish and management.
Norma: Hi everyone. My name is Norma Flores Lopez. I currently work at East Coast Migrant Head start Project. I worked formerly in the fields and I grew up in an area in South Texas called the Rio Grande Valley and would migrate with my family to go up North and work in the fields. And so I’ve been doing advocacy on behalf of farm worker children now for well over a decade here in Washington, DC, and as a part of the Child Labor Coalition.
Araceli: My name is Araceli and I’m from Aderrick California. I love fishing and kayaking. It’s really fun.
Reid: Awesome. I thought we would start by maybe talking a little bit about your early experiences in the fields and how old you were when you got started and what that was like?
Norma: Sure. I can get started with that. I’m seeing how I used to work a little bit before you guys were even born, I guess. I grew up working in the fields. My earliest memories had probably been around nine years old, working in the Apple orchards with my parents in Indiana. But officially on the books I started working at the age of 12. I grew up in a migrant farm worker family. My parents did that. My grandparents did that. We would travel from South Texas where our home was up to the States like Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, and Colorado and did everything from Apple harvest to detasseling corn, picking asparagus, picking onions, a little bit of those different crops. And again, I had started well before the legal working age of 12 years old, and it started off with just a place for me to be because my parents didn’t have anybody to watch us.
Norma: So on the weekends, we’d accompany my parents to the Apple orchards and what started off as sort of play just to keep us entertained. Here’s a bucket, pick up the apples that had fallen on the ground, and then we would race each other and see who would be able to pick the fastest. In any of these sort of contributions, especially in a piece rate system, which is very popular in crop production, you get paid based on how much you’re able to produce, you’re able to pick and harvest. So we would be contributing to my families buckets, to their bushels, to how much they were able to collect. And so it started off in those sort of small, more innocent sort of ways. But once it was legal for me to be able to start working at the age of 12, I started working what was considered full time.
Norma: So for me full time was not the typical nine to five Monday through Friday, but rather it was seven days a week, sometimes three weeks straight without having any time off. It would mean working 10, 12 hour days in the peak of the harvest and we started doing detasseling corn, we started working in the Apple orchards and it was really labor, intensive, hard work. It was backbreaking work. The summer days could be really, really hot and when you’re in a corn field, the plants tower over you. So I’ve never been a very tall person. I’m pretty petite, but those corn plants where sometimes a couple of feet ahead of me. So the thing is, if you’ve ever been to a corn field, it provides no shade whatsoever, but Philly does a really good job of blocking any wind, any breeze that you would be able to feel.
Norma: And so there you would be in some of these rows that could be a quarter mile long, it could be half a mile, it could be a full mile long and you’d be there pulling the tassels out for the production of seeds. And so it was really hard work, especially as a 12 year old kid, who’s pretty small trying to keep up with all the other adults so you wouldn’t be left behind. You would push your body to try to keep up with everybody and try really hard and not ask for breaks because you knew that when you’re in the middle of a one mile row of corn, there’s not anywhere really to sit down, there’s no water to drink and again, you just don’t want to be left behind from everybody else. So it was really backbreaking work and I did that all through my childhood.
Norma: Every summer, sometimes my spring breaks, sometimes on the weekends to help out my family up until it was time for me to go to college. And then luckily I was able to find an internship where I was able to supplement that money that my family needed and do indoor air conditions or to work behind a desk. And ever since then, I’ve never looked back but that was my experience of working in the fields. And now I hear that’s pretty similar to kids nowadays and that’s the stories that my family tells me of when they were growing up as well.
Jazmin: I remember when I first like got in touch with agriculture work, I wanted to sort potatoes. And when you sort potatoes, it’s like a machine going really fast. And so you have to pull out really fast. Like you have to be aware of the rotten ones and pull them out and throw them behind you or in a bucket that they have. And I remember because I was a little like my brain, for some reason, doesn’t know how to balance things out. I used to get dizzy, but I’m like, no, I have to do this. I want to do this and get money from my mom because I wanted to help her. And like, not be able to say that I give her money but just help them out to where they didn’t have to worry about working an extra hour long just to pay for a bill.
Jazmin: And so I think I was around the age, like 12, I was really young and I also was in the field on the tractors with the potatoes again. It was just me and my older sister and we were on top of a machine and when they press the brakes you slam really hard because there’s a bar on the middle. And I remember I used to go home with bruises because they would stop so hard and we were pulling the potatoes out. It was again sorting on top of the machine. And like, it was just really painful because we were in the sun, we didn’t have water and we couldn’t take breaks like Norma said, because we were in the middle of the field. We were so far in those machines have to go slow to make sure that all the potatoes are out.
Jazmin: And so I remember that was like really hard work for me, especially because most kids spend their summers doing camps and stuff, but I was in the fields trying to get money for my parents and for my sisters so that I can get some kind of stress off their shoulders. And I also did work when I was 14 pulling the weeds from the potatoes. They can be really short to where you’re crawling and pull them out or they can be like 5ft. tall, which I’m 5ft.4in. So that’s not that much shorter than me. So you can squat down and you go all the way in the row and you’re pulling them like side to side. And you’re like mostly hunchback, I don’t know how to explain it, but you’re like hunched down, pulling them.
Jazmin: And I remember it was like terrible because you’re getting wet and so your pants are soaking wet the entire time that you’re pulling them because you have to start really early to do it so that you can get through at least half to fill by the time that lunchtime comes around. So it was really hard and I remember like seeing my grandpa, he was like, so ahead of everybody. And he was like 70 years old. So I was like, “Oh my gosh, my grandpa’s so tough.” And we’ll be here 14 year old, can’t even catch up to him. So I remember I was really impressed by my grandpa and like I’ve only known agriculture work. So I was trying to be the best that I can be because my parents taught me how to do agriculture because that’s what they know to do.
Jazmin: So it was really hard work and it was really hot, especially in Colorado because I live in a place where it’s really high elevation. So when that sun really hits us hard. It hits our skin hard and there’s no humidity so it’s really dry air. And I remember I would go home, I was so sore I couldn’t even lay on my bed. I would throw myself on my bed because I couldn’t even squat down. I would get so sore that I go to the gym now and then. I like to work out but I have never been sorer than going out there in the fields and pulling those weeds from the potatoes. It was hard. I became really humble because my parents, they, it wasn’t like a punishment to put us in the field. Like they wanted us to learn what they had to do their entire lives to see why they do it. I became super humble because my parents gave up their lives in Mexico to give us a better opportunity that they were offered when they were younger. So I was not mad to be put in the field. I knew it was something that I had to do to become humble and be grateful for what I did have and not want other things that other kids had. I was grateful for the little things that I did have because of the work that they were doing in the sun.
Araceli: So my experience in the field, my grandparents, they worked in the fields and then my parents, they worked in the field as well. My mom was picking flowers and so she would take me along and I was just like little baby, like two years old. And because I was just an infant and I like to run and explore, she tied me up around a tree. So I wouldn’t move. And just hearing that story, I don’t know, I sometimes feel she chained me up and I felt like a prisoner, but my earliest memories of working in the field was probably 9 or 10, tying grapevines, doing weed work, but once I got older, around 15, I started doing like the really tough work that adults do such as, blueberries, onions, garlic. And basically you would spend your free time when you’re supposed to be having fun, like your spring break, your winter break and your summer just working in the fields.
Araceli: And also during the school year, because the harvest never ends. It’s always a different crop but I agree with what Jazmin said. You said that it working in the field made you humble, but I think my parents taking me to the fields showed me a really strong work ethic. A lot of people have told me that and I definitely thank my parents for teaching me to always work hard.
Reid: Why do you think farm worker’s children are in the fields? What are some of the causes of children being there?
Jazmin: Poverty, you know, families migrating, they start off with nothing. For example, my parents moved from Mexico with $200 in their pocket and all they were taught to do was work in the fields. So children are sometimes they have a choice of going out there, but most of the time Hispanic families are really close and we want to do anything for our family. So as little kids knowing that their parents are struggling, makes them sad. So they’ll do anything to help their family. So being in the field is a way of helping their parents take that stress off their shoulders. So I would say it’s poverty, a big reason why
Norma: I think that a lot of the times we don’t give kids a lot of credit or enough credit. Children are keenly aware of their family’s financial status. At a very young age, we learn that we are poor and that our families are struggling to make ends meet and my family, we had a lot of love, we had a lot of happiness as you hear, a lot of closeness, just like so many other farmworker families. We build that strong bond with each other. So we weren’t lacking in any of those things but you can definitely become aware of how other kids are getting toys or they’re getting vacations, or they’re getting sun tans, not from working in the onion fields, but from being at the beach with their family and those were luxuries that we had very far and few in between.
Norma: And so when you see your parents trying to hide the stress trying to be able to not show that we’re lacking you still become aware of that. And children have good sentiments where they want to help. They love their parents, they love their family, and they want to do anything for them. And so I know that for me, that was very true that I want it to be able to ease a little bit of that burden that my parents had to carry. So I willingly wanted to go work in the fields, but I think that a lot of the times when we’re making those are choices as children we haven’t developed quite yet the ability to see in the future, how this is going to impact us. We see so many of our family members that don’t “make it” but we don’t quite see the connection to working in the fields.
Norma: And so, yes, the poverty is the biggest determinant and unfortunately the great irony is that many farmers kids aren’t able to feed themselves, even though they’re producing, they’re working hard so that everybody can eat and that because they have that sentiment of wanting to help the family members, we sacrifice our childhood, our health, our education, and many times that impedes our ability to be able to complete our school and to be able to get a better future for our family. And we get stuck in this generation after generation of poverty. But really we know that poverty is going to be the single most determinant factor in whether a child is going to work in the fields or not.
Jazmin: I actually think it’s due to the minimum wage or the pay rate that farm workers are paid. You’re paid by piece. So if you have a lot of members in your family, let’s say like my family seven, you want to bring everybody out. And the more you make, the more money you’ll bring home. So the ultimate goal is to make as much as possible. And I also think it has to do with the lack of providing childcare, some type of childcare. If there was some place where families can drop off their children, where they would feel comfortable enough I mean, I was in migrant seasonal head start, but they’re not always there. They’re only there for a season, but I wish it was like bit longer.
Norma: And piggybacking on what she’s saying, yes, it absolutely has to do with a lot of choices that come when you are paid a fair living wage. I think that’s the biggest issue here is if these families are paid a fair living wage, then they’re able to make choices for their children, be able to provide quality childcare options for their children, whether working in the fields, they’re able to feed their families. Then you’d be able to determine how or long these kids can be in the field to be able to still learn those work ethics that we were able to learn. But it’s a very different environment when these children are made to work because their families are in desperate poverty because they’re not getting paid enough. And there’s nowhere else for these kids to go. It’s a very different environment and you make choices that you wouldn’t have otherwise made had you been paid a fair living wage? And so I think it’s incredibly important that we continue to support efforts that will provide farm workers with the fair living wage, whether it’s through worker driven solutions, or unions, or fair trade sort of options. There’s a number of different movements out there, but that would help alleviate a lot of these sort of issues. If they were accompanied with regulations and laws that would help keep children out of the fields and into higher quality programs like the migrant seasonal head start program
Reid: Well, how much do children make, who work in the fields.
Norma: In reality, it’s not a whole lot. We’re talking here about piece rate. I was a terrible farmworker and I would’ve starved if it wasn’t for my education and that I found somewhere else, I could be able to be useful and get paid for that. My family did not make enough but from studies that I remember it was shown that at most a farmworker child will make is about a thousand a year but when you compare that to how much they lose, it’s so much more. But I didn’t make a whole lot. I think my parents ended up losing money and just the lunch that they would provide me and the sodas compared to what I would make out there, because I was a terrible picker. I don’t know. Maybe you guys were better pickers than me.
Araceli: I was a way better picker in the onion picker. I was probably the best in my family and I was really fast and that just helped to contribute to the family salary.
Jazmin: I was like, okay. I probably wasn’t good because my grandpa just impressed me, excuse me. Yes. He was like half, I don’t know how far he was, but he was always the first one done, but I don’t, we didn’t really make much either. It definitely didn’t equal out to the water, the soda. Because we would pack a lot of water just because it was very hot out there. We probably did not make that much. I don’t remember how much it was, but definitely is not something that were helped so much of my parents.
Norma: I think that that’s one of the other lessons in addition to the work ethic it was also about being prepared and not really, depending on a lot of people for some of your basics, As Jazmin pointed out they pack their water. That’s the same way with us even though it’s required by law for folks to be provided with water while they’re in the fields, the water that we were sometimes provided with was old water that had been sitting out there for like two days and two day old water tastes like two day old water. It’s not the same thing and especially when you’re out there in the fields, in the middle of the field, all you can think of is like that nice tall glass of nice cold water. And that was not the reality we were finding when you would get out of the row. So as a kid, I knew that we needed to pack not only our own meals and our own sodas and things like that, but we also needed to pack our own water and carry that with us because water was just too important. And we had already heard of very terrible, tragic stories of people who would succumb to heat stress, and sometimes even death because of the lack of water.
Reid: What about pesticides? Is that a problem with working in the fields?
Araceli: Yes, I remember when I was little and I would go with my mom to the fields. I remember me and my sister would just walk around with her and I would see really nasty bugs. And I was like [00:18:37 inaudible] mom what is that? And she’s like, Oh, it’s for the plans, it helps them grow and stuff. And I would like scream because I don’t like bugs still to this day and my mom would just kill them for us but we probably did get bit by a lot of that stuff. And it’s not something that people should think, “Oh my gosh, why would your mom have you out there?” Or they didn’t really have a choice. It’s either take us with you in the field or leave us half a mile away where you can’t see us after a while.
Araceli: So I do remember seeing some bugs in there and nasty.
Norma: With us, we were always told that pesticides, the chemicals that they would use often were medicine for the plants. That’s how we always knew them as. My family, we would equate medicine with good for your body. Not necessarily something that was poisonous, that was detrimental to our health. And so it wasn’t until I was about the age of 16, that it was an outreach program through Proteus when we were working in Iowa, that we learned about pesticides and pesticide safety, how to protect our families from that exposure and some of the long-term effects that it could have both the short term, the acute effects, but also the long term ones and that’s when we started realizing, you know, you have this sort of flashback moment where you’re like, Oh my God, like all those instances in which I was like, Oh, I think I was poisoned then.
Norma: Oh wait, that’s why I was feeling sick. Oh, that’s when my skin was itchy. You know, when you’re out there and you’re wanting to sit down and eat and your hands are grimy from picking all that produce, you try to find the water, the closest water to sort of rinse off your hands and not thinking this is laced with poisons that they’re using to protect the plants. So I remember going out there and just washing my hands then times when the fields next to us, would get sprayed and you would find that little mist that was almost refreshing because you would feel something cool hitting you not realizing, “Hey, that’s probably not a good thing for me to be exposed to those chemicals.” So a lot of it was just lack of education, a lot of it was lack of choice.
Norma: You don’t get to just not go into a field because you don’t feel comfortable going there. That’s the work that’s being assigned to you and lack of it is just not really knowing what it is that you’re being exposed to at all. And so it does create those sort of dangerous conditions but then you look back at your family and you realize, “Hey, I had that uncle that had cancer and my grandparents that died of Alzheimer’s” and you start connecting the dots and hearing about the research of the long-term. So even though I haven’t been in the fields in a few years, we won’t talk about how many, but in a few when I do my checkups, that’s something I still sort of hold my breath and make sure that they’re not going to find cancer or some sort of other disease that even though it’s been long in my past, it’s still something that can continue to haunt me to today, but yes, pesticides are dangerous and terrible.
Norma: And to hear even now the battles that are being fought of keeping out some of the most dangerous is kind of concerning knowing that there are children that are out there and that these dangerous chemicals are being allowed to be used.
Araceli: I definitely wonder sometimes if pesticides are passed on to the children, I mean because recently I’ve been talking to a lot of my family members and the women, they can’t have kids. And just yesterday I was talking to one of my cousins and she said that she needs to get her blood work done. And I got my blood work done and the doctor told me that I probably won’t be able to have kids too. And I mean, you just have to learn how to accept that and, for blueberry picking you would think that you would use gloves but you really can’t in that work environment because you need your skin to hold the fruit and put it in the basket.
Reid: I’m getting an impression of agriculture as being a really dangerous place to work. And it’s really ironic that it is the place where we have exemptions that allow children to work at really young ages. It doesn’t seem to make any sense at all.
Norma: Absolutely doesn’t and it goes back to reality versus what’s written down on paper and what people want you to believe. They want you to believe and to buy into the story that your fruits and vegetables come from these happy farms with beautiful red barns and beautiful blue skies, and look how green and gorgeous these fields are. And look at how these farm workers are out there playing their music and how happy they are to be out there working alongside the farmer. And that was never my experience. I know that that was never the experience of my family’s. For us it’s more of put your head down, work hard, work, even harder. If you’re feeling sick, I don’t know how about taking a swig of soda and keep on keeping on, brush it off if that’s a bug that’s on your back, you just kind of kill it and hope it didn’t hurt you and keep on going. Is it hot? Is it raining? Is it cold? Is it any of those things? You just keep on going, and no matter how fast and how hard you worked, people are going to want you to work harder and faster. And even though decades can pass by the wages, don’t change an awful lot. It’s really a terrible place to work.at and the exemptions should not be there. It’s long overdue. It doesn’t match the reality for whatever reason they were justified back in those days which we know definitely has those racist ties. We know it has those capitalistic sort of views, but it doesn’t match with the country, the values that we present today of freedom of being able to fulfill your destiny and the American dream and the pursuit of happiness or liberty, any of those sort of pieces are not matching with the story of farm workers that are out in those fields and picking those blueberries that we enjoyed in our blueberry pie. This 4th of July is not matching with the reality of even the breakfast is that we’re having today. The lunches, the dinners that we join our families around those fruits and vegetables are coming down to a very heavy price that farm workers are paying and especially farm worker children.
Reid: I think the public would be really shocked to know that farm worker kids are allowed to work unlimited hours at the age of 12. It’s just insane and I’ve been talking to Araceli. I know that she’s had some, some incredibly long days that are never ending basically.
Araceli: Oh yes. There are two shifts basically during the summer. It starts at 7:00 AM in the morning. You go into the field, you pick blueberries and then you get off at 1:00 PM. And basically during that whole time, you’re crouching, you’re searching for those blueberries, trying to fill up as many buckets as you can, because ultimately you’re paid by piece again. So you want to make more, and there’s also a certain requirement. If you don’t make 16 buckets you’re laid off and you have to make that certain amount. And then so 7:00 AM you get in, you get off like at 1:00 PM, then your night shift starts, which starts around 4:00 PM. You arrive to the onion fields and you start working in harvesting onions and you get off probably at 3:00 AM. It’s a really long shift. You just sleep a little bit and it’s just wears on your body because I mean, I had to go see a chiropractor and my back’s always hurting, but you just have to deal with it now.
Araceli: I mean I wish my parents wouldn’t have taken me to those jobs because the price that a child pays, it’s really terrible. Your back’s always in pain and you just get sick a lot because of the pesticides.
Norma: But you have these back problems when you were how old Araceli?
Araceli: I was like 12.
Norma: With back problems. I mean, we’ve seen that Reid of cases where kids are so young and they already complained about their back’s aching needing to see folks. I mean, I’m sure you’ve ran into family members that have had to go get help for their backs.
Jazmin: Yes. Definitely, especially my grandparents coming from Mexico just to work over here and they’re literally working to pay their bills that they have to go see the doctors over there because it’s not free. And I would like to comment on what Norma had said. It’s sad because when I passed by, driving by the fields and I see people I want to cry so badly because I know that pain.
Jazmin: And I’m like, “Oh my gosh,” I feel bad for those people and nobody drives by in a city, see somebody in office like, “Oh my gosh, I feel bad for them working there.” Like that’s how, you know, it’s hard is when you see people in the field, it really does make you sad, especially when you’re driving in an air conditioned car and they’re out there in the heat working really hard, especially when they have to put on so much clothes because they don’t want to get burnt by the sun because of skin cancer. So everybody has hoodies on and is sweating more than you can sweat running on a treadmill inside a gym.
Araceli: Yes, I mean when I was back in California, I would be driving to school and you would see the workers. I would be driving like around 7:00 AM and I mean, that’s the usual time that you go into work and you would just see the workers getting ready, getting out of their cars with their lunch bowls and going into the fields to pick oranges.
Araceli: And meanwhile, I was in a car with air conditioning and driving to college and then while I was arriving at college, I was sitting in the classroom and then I was just like, damn, it’s so hot out there and they’re just working and they won’t stop working until the shift ends.
Norma: It really is bittersweet. As you could hear, there’s a lot of pride in the work that we did, a lot of pride in what our parents did and the sacrifices and the work ethic and the great lessons that we get out of that and appreciating things that are given to us and things that we earn. I know for me, I absolutely loved the fact that I got to spend so much time with my family, with my parents, with my sisters to be out in the field with cousins.
Norma: So you definitely make the best of it and there’s a lot of pride that comes from that. And from you knowing that what you produce goes on the tables of people from across the country, your work, you could see it, you could feel it, but it’s tied in with a lot of the injustice that comes with it. A lot of pain from the degradation, the humiliation of how people look down on a farm workers, how poorly they can be treated. I’ve had crew leaders that talk down to me, yell at me, curse me out, repeat to me “if you can’t even do field work, what good are you? You can’t do anything in life.” cutting You down really bad and I think it goes back to the message that at least I tried to be able to show that this is dignified work.
Norma: This is really hard work that we are incredibly proud of and we just are asking for farm workers to be treated with dignity. That’s what they want is work with dignity. They want to be able to afford to feed their families and they want to be treated with respect, like anybody else to be treated like a person. You wouldn’t want your parents to be yelled at, to not be given water, to not have a clean bathroom to go to not have reasonable work hours. And so that’s what we see of wanting for our family members and for me taking a step further in working in this advocacy for years now. My goal is to be able to make sure that there’s other kids that are able to get out of the field. That’s what they want to do.
Norma: If they want to go back and own a farm, that there are avenues to do that. If they want to go back and continue working in the fields, there are people that love to do outdoor work, but you don’t stay in it because it doesn’t pay because it’s the way people treat you the terrible work conditions. But if any of those things were improved, if the pay was improved, if people were treated with respect, I think there’ll be a lot more people interested in that. And what I try to wake up every day to do now, as I work here in Washington, DC is to make sure that every child has a choice and that if they want to be a doctor, then they will have options to be a doctor. If they want to be the next president of the United States, they will have that option.
Norma: And to know that if there is nobody else in the world that believes in them that I do, if there’s nobody else that’s, that can help them in that path I will, I’ll be their biggest cheerleader. I’ll provide them with housing. I’ll feed them as I’ve done with many former farm worker kids that are working here in DC. There’s so much potential in the fields that oftentimes gets lost because of this trap that fieldwork creates for them, that I think that if we all did our part, that we can be able to dismantle that system and that there is hope and that this is a very resilient community. And so yes, every time you drive by the fields, you get that bittersweet, that pride, that joy, those happy memories but also mixed in with that pain, the backaches the sadness that comes from knowing that our parents didn’t get to fill their dreams. They didn’t grow up wanting to be field workers and knowing that there’s hope for the future, that there’s going to be other kids that don’t have to do that anymore, unless that’s what they want to do.
Reid: It’s kind of a difficult question because we know that farm worker families are poor and they need the money. So a lot of us are advocating to make it impossible for young children to work in the fields. How do you guys feel about that as a, as a strategy?
Jazmin: I mean, how I had said before, I mean, if I was still at that age and it came to how you said for it to be impossible, I would be sad because I don’t, I don’t like seeing my parents be in the room, talking really though talking about how they can’t pay a bill, because I remember I had so much relief and I was so happy when me and my sisters were able to collect the money that we use to work, to give to my parents to pay the electricity bill so that we can have heat because it was during winter. And so I personally wouldn’t,
Reid: But you’re a survivor educationally and not all farm worker kids succeed. We think the dropout rate is at least 50 percent. What if it means that kids are sacrificing their futures for their family’s prosperity? Is it worth it?
Norma: I mean, at the moment it feels like it’s worth it. And we definitely understand that. I mean, I was in that same situation. I just wanted to help my parents, but I think it’s a mistake to just look at that and single that single solution out. It has to come with a number of things. Yes, outlaw child labor, but then also let’s take a look at the reasons why child labor was created the poverty, the fact that there’s a lack of fair living wage. If you hear Jazmin, she wants to go out there to her work to help her parents. But if her parents were paid a fair living wage, her work wouldn’t be needed. I also think that there can be a place to be able to have vocational training to be able to create safe work conditions.
Norma: You know, there are kids that have afterschool jobs that they work at the mall that they work delivering papers and all of those have with a certain set of conditions to make sure that it’s not detrimental to their health and it’s not impacting their school. And none of that care is being provided for children working in agriculture. If we were to take a look at agriculture and make sure that children are doing tasks that are safe for them at appropriate hours, that do not interrupt their school that are not detrimental to their health,. I think there could be a place for that so that there could be a way for these kids to learn the value of the things that are purchasing of the value of hard work without needing to be exploitative without being dangerous, harmful,
Araceli: I would say it would have to do with of course I wouldn’t want any child to go through child labor or anything like I went through, but sometimes it depends on your situation.
Araceli: Like for example, if your parents get an injury and then they’re unable to provide as the oldest child, you have to step up and basically start working, replacing your parent. And sometimes it’s really hard as a college student because you have to go to school and then you have to go to work and you basically have to be in charge of the family. It definitely sucks and I wish there was more financial services and scholarships for our students who are like farm workers and scholars, because we’re trying, we’re really trying to finish our education. But I mean, if your parents are injured and have a disability, there’s no other job for them, especially if they’re undocumented. I mean, it just adds to the weight that you carry as an oldest child.
Reid: I think of child labor as a subsidy to the whole farm industry because it allows them not to pay farm workers a living wage, because children are working. Children are picking up the slack. And if they weren’t there, the farmers would have to pay more money. Now I know the farmers aren’t necessarily making the money. Maybe it’s the grocery stores. I’m not exactly sure where you know, who is making the money, but it’s not the farm workers,. It’s not the farm workers and it’s not the children.
Norma: But I think what sits uncomfortable the most with me is the fact that there are two sets of laws here in this country. There are children who work in agriculture and everybody else. And for the most part, as I mentioned, children that are working in other industries, including in air conditioned offices, there are certain restrictions, there are certain care that’s being put in place to make sure that that child is not getting their education truncated and that they’re still not going to be affected regardless of the, the poverty level of their family, regardless of their background. That’s the laws here. But then there’s that set of laws for children in agriculture, where it’s a free for all. I can tell you that the entire time I was working in the fields from nine years old, all the way until I was 18 years old, I never saw any inspectors out there.
Norma: I never had anybody come and ask me how I was being treated to make sure that there was water, there was adequate bathrooms to make sure any of those things because it’s sort of out of sight out of mind. Most people have never been out to the fields. Don’t really see it. These young ladies would drive by those fields because they live in those agricultural towns and they knew that those were their families that were out there, but for most part, people would just drive by and wouldn’t be out there at six in the morning driving by a field. And so again, you can’t tell from, as you’re driving by how many of those are children or they’re 12, how many of them are younger? How many of them have been there when they’re supposed to be in school? You don’t see any of those things like you do for children that are working in more urban areas.
Norma: And so to me, the part that really doesn’t sit well is to know that in our legislature, there is an exemption that says that my childhood is worth less than the childhood of every other child that does not work in agriculture, that my childhood did not deserve to be protected the way those other children did. That’s the part that sits uncomfortable for me. It’s not like we’re allowing all children to work in any industry at the age of 12. We’re allowing children that are mostly Latino, that are mostly brown kids that used to be black kids to work in this industry that we know is among the most dangerous, if not the most dangerous in this country. We’re not allowing kids to work in coal mines that we know of. We don’t allow kids to be working in construction sites, and those are the other two more dangerous industries, but we knowingly except the fact that there are12 year olds or younger working in agriculture that are getting terribly hurt sometimes even dying that even when they leave the fields, the fields doesn’t leave them.
Reid: And it creates a lot of generational poverty.
Araceli: Not only that, but I think there’s a psychological effect sometimes on children. You always feel that pressure to take care of your family and always provide for them and sometimes he just can’t let that go. Like this internship coming from California, all the way to Washington, DC I definitely sometimes miss my family and they call me, they tell me about their day in the job. And I mean, I know what they’re experiencing because I already went through it and I’m sitting in the office, maybe typing a letter to a representative. So I’m just thinking about my, my brothers and sisters. I mean, I’m doing this work for them. I’m not only doing that for them, but I’m doing it for all the children.
Araceli: And that just motivates me to keep on doing the best in the job.
Norma: But you absolutely hit right on the nail on the head, which is, it never leaves you. You always are thinking of the family. A lot of folks think, Oh, well, Norma, you know, she’s gotten postsecondary education. She’s working nice office in Washington, DC, she made it she’s good, but we’re just one catastrophe away from not making it. We have no safety net and we know that our parents don’t have a retirement plan. Don’t have savings for that. So as we are planning for our financial future, we’re also thinking about everybody else behind us, our little sister that needs to finish school and that you might need to be able to pay for a class, our parents who, if their car breaks down, I have to cut that check.
Norma: When my parents get old, who’s going to take care of them? That’s on us. You know, I have to just not only prepare for me and for my child and her future, but then also make sure that my parents are taken care of. And that’s what I mean about, you know, if any, one of our family members gets cancer, for example, and unfortunately in this country that doesn’t take care of everybody who doesn’t have insurance and can bankrupt people that could very much happen to us. So even though I have my education, that doesn’t mean that I’m safe just yet. You’re still thinking of the family, that’s back home, the ones that are still working in the fields that still need that support for the family to be lifted out of, out of poverty, breaking that generational cycle is the real thing.
Norma: And it’s really hard.
Araceli: I mean, it all has to do with speaking up and telling your story. A lot of people, they just kind of keep that inside internally and I definitely think there should be more psychological services because some women are harassed and men are harassed too. Kids see this and I mean, they don’t, they don’t fully understand it, but I just think there should be more help for that and people really need to speak up and tell their story because nothing, this will happen again to another girl, or this will happen again to another boy
Reid: I spoke with a migrant clinician one time and I was asking them about injuries that farm worker kids might suffer. It was in the cherry harvest and I thought kids would be falling off ladders and really hurting themselves. And the clinician told me that they thought that the main problem was mental illness that so many farmworkers were depressed. A lot of them were far from home and depressed and very culturally isolated some turned to alcohol, some turned to other things but they really were suffering from major depression because of their life.
Norma: Yes, alcoholism, especially I think is a sort of among the unspoken ailments of our community. That’s something that really played my family. My father struggled with alcoholism and my grandparents and my grandpa did as well, my uncles. There’s a lot of family members that died. Eventually my dad was able to join an alcoholics anonymous program that helped him and his alcoholism. Although he knows it’s a struggle that goes day by day. You just take it day by day but we know that that’s something that we saw really hurt our family with the alcoholism. And like I said, I can’t help, but to think back of my dad’s own dreams of being able to be an engineer, to be an architect, to be able to when he loves school, but he was the oldest son and the family needed him to get out of school and in the sixth grade to go work in the fields.
Norma: And so even though he that’s what he wanted to do, he wanted to go to school and to learn and to be somebody fulfill his dreams. It wasn’t something that was ever possible for him and so he ended up having to give that up and, and the pain was real and they deal with those sort of crushed dreams in their own ways. And I know that that definitely played a part but my family is much better now thanks to his recovery and it’s, again, it’s an ongoing effort, but that’s something we see quite a bit that it did impact my family and it definitely opened my eyes to the need to better support each other.
Jazmin: I agree how you were saying that is a really big thing in the Hispanic community because it’s their escape. I remember my dad used to tell me I have so many miles on my back. You could never imagine and it’s from the field work from everything that he did working in the agriculture. And so, I mean, their go to is to alcohol, to, you know, relax and try to forget about a bit, even after it rubs off, it’s, it’s still there. It’s something they can really get rid of. It’s going to be with them in their memory for a lifetime.
Reid: So how do we, how do we improve the situation? Are there, are there specific things that we should be fighting for you think?
Norma: Yes, absolutely. I think that there are a number of different initiatives and movements that we know about out there. I think first and foremost, people need to be much more aware of where their food comes from and be educated about what their purchases mean and what kind of systems their purchases are supporting. Oftentimes folks think, “Well, I’m buying from a farmer’s market, therefore, it’s going to be not only organic, but ethical, it’s going to be local. It’s going to be all the great things that I’m told that it’s supposed to be.” But oftentimes people don’t take the time to ask “what’s the working condition for the workers on your farms”. Just because something is organic doesn’t mean it’s something that’s justly picked or that it’s free of child labor. And there’ll be surprised to know that a lot of these organic farms still employ children and it’s perfectly legal for them to do so, but I think people need to learn more.
Norma: I think there needs to be more transparency and people being able to access that information Big Ag has made it almost impossible to trace back your food where it’s coming from. And we’re seeing that that’s impacting lots of communities, whether it’s ecoli breakouts, or it’s a number of different sort of health issues that come up from that. And that as Americans, we need to demand more of that transparency. But more than anything, like I said, I think it really has to start with just food, with dignified work supporting union, supporting organizations like the UFW or like the Coalition of Immokalee workers or a number of different unions that are across this country that are trying to make sure that farm workers are provided with a fair living wage, with a safe working conditions, with dignity, with respect, without harassment. And so it definitely starts there because when farm workers are able to get paid, what they deserve, then they can be able to make better choices for their children. And finally, making sure that children are supported in their dreams, that there are scholarships available to them that there are educational high quality educational options for them so that they can be able to pursue all of their hopes and dreams.
Reid: It’s amazing. When you watch commercials about agricultural products, they never show the workers, almost never. You have to go back like 30 years when they showed Juan Valdez picking coffee beans, but for the most part, you see commercial after commercial, or even in movies they show farmers, but they rarely show farm workers. And I think it kind of allows the public to think the food magically appears on their tables.
Norma: Well, actually I think we were joking about it and one of our migrant seasonal had start meetings for the parents. They were looking at a pamphlet that was showing a farm worker and they’re like “that farm worker wasn’t working in the fields because that lady,” we were like “that lady’s clothes were too clean and to be wearing such a white pants”. That’s not a real thing.
Reid: It is kind of mind boggling that 80 years after the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, we’re still excluding young children from basic protections, which people would be absolutely shocked. I think.
Norma: In addition to the Care Act, I think it’s also important to support another Bill by Cecilyene that would outlaw child labor in tobacco because tobacco is another crop that in addition to all the inherent dangers of working in agriculture, it also exposes children to high levels of nicotine causing these kids to get really sick on nicotine poisoning which is also known as the green tobacco illness. And so if we are, as a country saying that children should not be touching tobacco products, that they shouldn’t be smoking until the age of 18 and some places pushing for even the age of 21, because we know how terrible tobacco can be for your health, it’s surprising to me that it’s perfectly legal for a 12 year old to go out there and pick these tobacco leaves and get that exposure. So that’s another easy way for us to be able to even get rid of something that has absolutely no logic whatsoever to be allowing for children to be picking that. So I think those are two easy legislative solutions that the Care Act and the keep children out of tobacco fields bill as well.
Reid: We’ve also seen that our laws have, have made it really difficult for farm workers to organize unions. And in New York State, they passed a new law for that State that would help make it easier for farm workers to unionize. And that’s something I think that could really be helpful to the farm worker community.
Norma: Absolutely. So, yes, I think there, that would be a great start is to keep children out of the fields to pay farm workers better and allow them to unionize, to create better educational pathways for these kids to be able to get high quality education and to be able, hopefully to get out of school without much debt because that’s a whole other issue that we’re all feeling here as we’re trying to make it out as first generation college students. But I think that if we were to do that, we’d be in a much better place as a country and we’d have food on our table so we could feel much better about
Reid: What should consumers be doing you think?
Norma: Like I said, asking a lot of questions, asking a lot of questions and demanding more out of their members of Congress that there would be more transparency where their food comes from. They should definitely be concerned about that and to understand what their dollars are supporting. So I think consumers can do a whole lot more in asking questions and supporting organic and more equitable food products. There are a lot of folks that are working hard to make sure that there is a more domestic fair trade options that consumers can buy from farms that don’t mistreat them because you don’t need to be abusive to your farm workers in order to be able to have a successful company there are companies out there that are showing that.
Reid: And I just wanted to add that all three of you are part of the solution. Well you’re spending your career Norma working on these issues and you’ve both spent your summers trying to help out the Advocacy Movement with NCL playing an important role in removing most child labor in the U S in the 19th century and we’re trying to finish the job now. So we thank all of you for your roles, your efforts in trying to help us with that and it’s been great.