Young farmworker shares lessons on hard life in fields – National Consumers League

Meet Samantha Guillen, a child farmworker since age 6, who is helping advocates fight for increased protections for our youngest child laborers in the fields.

One of the great things about doing child labor advocacy is that you get to meet extraordinary young people who have overcome many obstacles associated with child labor and see a responsibility to help prevent other children from following their path. NCL staff recently had the opportunity to meet one of those young people—a young woman who has been toiling in the fields for the last dozen years—at a congressional briefing organized June 22 by advocates working to protect child farmworkers.

Samantha Guillen, 18, told briefing attendees that she began working in the fields when she was just six years old. Her family, she said, has done migratory farmworker for generations. Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and asparagus are among the crops the Guillen family has harvested, although her father developed a bad back from harvesting asparagus and the family has decided to avoid that physically demanding crop.

Samantha, who is still a farmworker today, has pretty strong feelings about agricultural labor: “I hate it. I hate this job,” she told briefing participants. She explained how you start in the early morning when it’s freezing cold. Many kids do not have jackets but work in the cold anyway, she added. When it rains, you keep on working. When the sun get’s high, it’s boiling hot, she explained. Her family sometimes works from 4:30 a.m. until 3:00 p.m., without breaks. “They want you working all the time,” she explained.

The workers, Samantha said, often must eat right in the fields without sanitation facilities to wash their dirty hands, something that has always bothered her. Water and toilets are often far away.

The pay is paltry. She’s lucky to earn $200-300 every two weeks, Samantha said.

“As for my education, it was very, very hard,” said Samantha. As a migrant she moved a lot, often going back and forth from Texas to Washington State. “It was always pieces of school,” she said. “I was always the new kid. I was failing my classes.” But she kept at it and eventually got through and graduated near the top of her class and is now about to enter college. Many of the kids she worked with weren’t so lucky. “Tons of my friends dropped out,” she said. Nationally, roughly two out of three farmworker children drop out of high school.

Advocates, including the members of the Child Labor Coalition, which is co-chaired by the National Consumers League, are fighting to increase the age at which children can legally work for wages in agriculture. They don’t think it’s right that 10- and 12-year-olds can work 10-12 hour days in near-100 degree heat. Most kids can’t work in an air-conditioned office until they are 16, they note. The Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE) would end child labor exemptions for agriculture so that kids like Samantha receive the same protections as other children.

By lending her voice, Samantha is hoping to help protect future generations of farmworker children. If you would like to learn more about the plight of farmworker children, please check out Fields of Peril, a new report from Human Rights Watch.