Americans are up in arms when it comes to child labor abroad, but there's little outrage when it comes to children working in America's fields.
While the U.S. spent $32 million dollars last year to end the use of child labor in other countries, here it's still perfectly legal for children as young as 12 to work in agriculture for up to to 60-70 hours a week.
“You're out there from seven to six,” said Everardo Cruz, 14, a veteran farm worker who works trimming tobacco and weeding sweet potato fields every summer in Lenoir County, North Carolina. “And once you're out there the sun gets pretty hot. Your back is totally out to the sun.”
The work takes its toll.
“The realities are that these kids, while working out in the fields, they are getting hurt,” said Norma Flores, who went from being a child laborer to child labor advocate at the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Program. “These kids are falling behind in school, dropping out at alarming rates and not being able to go on to college.”
Agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries for workers of any age. 74 percent of kids 16 and under killed on the job last year worked in agriculture, according to Human Rights Watch. Heavy machinery, pesticides and the heat are just some of the hazards.
And when children younger than 12 years old are working in the field — growers, contractors and regulators often turn a blind eye.
“My earliest memories of working in the fields had to have been probably about third grade,” said Flores.
Farmworkers are among America's poorest populations, getting paid minimum wage or by “piece rate,” meaning workers get paid by the volume they pick. According to the Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey, about three-quarters of farm workers make less than $10,000 a year, well below the poverty level. The extra hands — no matter how small — are a big help.
“It's a big struggle to be able to ask a family to stop taking their children to work out in the fields when you know that they're livelihood depends on these kids,” Flores said.
That’s the case with Everardo Cruz’s family. Cruz says he worked extra hard this summer because his dad injured his knee on the job.
“I mean they're my parents and they've been helping me out ever since I was born so I feel like, I have the right to help them out on whatever I can,” Cruz said.
Even Cruz’s father, who asked that Fusion not use his name, says he thinks his son is too young to work in the fields. But the money Everardo brings into the family helps. “This is the only job kids his age can do,” he said.
Advocates like Flores and organizations like the Child Labor Coalition (link here http://stopchildlabor.org) say that farm workers need better pay and the minimum age requirement for children needs to be raised.
For more than two decades, a perennial bill that would prohibit children under 14 from working in agriculture has been kicking around in Congress. This year, Congresswoman Lucille Royball-Allard (D-Calif.) introduced the CARE Act or the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment, but it has had little traction.
“Farm workers have very little political power in the U.S. They're not seen as a voting block,” explains Reid Maki of the Child Labor Coaltion. “So there's no real incentive for Congress to act.”
The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD), the government watchdog that keeps an eye on labor violations, including child labor abuses, declined our request for an interview. A statement sent by the department via email read: “Wage and Hour Division is vigilant in its efforts to curb child labor abuses.”
From 2011 to 2013, the Wage and Hour Division concluded 4,860 investigations in the agriculture sector. Of those investigations, the WHD found only two percent, or 106 of those cases, were for child labor violations.
“The minimum age of 12 for agriculture is very problematic because it does make it difficult for enforcement agencies to look at a kid and figure out if they're working legally or illegally,” says Maki. “If there's a 10-year-old working illegally next to that 12-year-old, there is not a big age gap.”
The cheap fruits and vegetables in our grocery stores are another driving factor of kids working in our fields. “In a way it's a subsidy for big agriculture. We have children in impoverished families picking fruit and some vegetables for almost no wages,” says Maki.
A study by Phillip Martin, a labor economist at University of California Davis, estimated that if farm wages rose 40 percent, the average spending by consumers on fruits and vegetables would rise about $15 dollars per year.
Until Americans are willing to pay more for produce and are up in arms about legislation that will increase the minimum age in agriculture, the fruits and vegetables we eat may have been picked by the smallest of hands.