By AMANDA VENDER

A six year-old girl works alongside her 9 year-old brother and parents in North Carolina. Usually kids at this age are just starting to help out their parents in the fields and don’t work for very long. Photo by: Heather Anderson, AFOP.
A six year-old girl works alongside her 9 year-old brother and parents in North Carolina. Usually kids at this age are just starting to help out their parents in the fields and don’t work for very long. Photo by: Heather Anderson, AFOP.

An ABC News investigation that came out in late October found that children as young as five and six years old were working as blueberry pickers on large farms in Michigan. They were working for one of the country’s biggest blueberry growers, Adkin Blue Ribbon Packing Company, which supplied blueberries to Wal-Mart, Kroger and Meijer supermarket chains. These companies have since stopped buying from Adkin.

While the investigation was news to some, it is actually very common for children to work on farms. In fact, there are about 400,000 children under age 18 working in U.S. agriculture, according to the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. “Americans think of child labor as a problem elsewhere, but in fact we have that problem in our own backyard. There is child labor in agriculture in almost every state in the United States,” Zama Coursen-Neff of Human Rights Watch told ABC News.

It is illegal for children under age 12 to work on large farms. But they work in order to earn money to help their families, most of which have migrated from Mexico and Central America. Teresa Hendricks of Michigan Migrant Legal Aid told the Democracy Now news program, “The children are actually helping the family. An average family of four will make usually under $12,000 for the year. So the parents…are not doing that to become rich; they’re doing that so they can have food on the table and they can eat.”

Why is Farm Work Dangerous?
Agricultural work is one of the most dangerous types of jobs a kid can have in the United States. Why?

  • Accidents with heavy machines
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals: fertilizers and pesticides for the crops can cause breathing problems, skin problems and cancer
  • Cold and heat strokes
  • Falls, slips and trips
  • Heavy lifting

This boy age 11, works along with his older brother, age 18, and twin sisters, age 16, in North Carolina. Photo by: Heather Anderson, AFOP.
This boy age 11, works along with his older brother, age 18, and twin sisters, age 16, in North Carolina. Photo by: Heather Anderson, AFOP.

How Many Blueberries Can You Pick?
On average, each worker in North Carolina earns $2.50 per one-gallon bucket of picked berries, according to the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. Depending on the size of the blueberries, it usually takes 30 minutes to fill a one-gallon bucket. Only the fastest workers earn more than the minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour.

Statistics:
The average income for a migrant family is $15,000 to $17,500 a year.
50% of the youth who work regularly on farms never graduate from high school.

At What Age Are Kids Allowed to Work?
According to U.S. law (the Fair Labor Standards Act), kids as young as 12 are allowed to work on farms for unlimited hours outside of school as long as their parents agree. For most other jobs, you have to be 14 to work.

Kids of any age, however, can work as actors or in family businesses, unless that work is dangerous. Children can also do chores and babysit for money, but only in private homes

Yesenia, age 12, works in Texas harvesting onions, trimming off the roots and greens. Photo by Reid Maki, AFOP.
Yesenia, age 12, works in Texas harvesting onions, trimming off the roots and greens. Photo by Reid Maki, AFOP.

In Their Own Words:
Zulay Roblez, age 11, Michigan:
“The thing I like about picking blueberries is that you can eat one when no one’s looking. The thing that I don’t like about working in the field is there are too many mosquitoes and the hot sun, the heavy things you have to carry. The green color you get on your hand and fingers.”

Lucia Aguilar, age 13, California: “Migrating with your family is really horrible because once you get here you have to work in absolute concentration, even though in the fields you have to face hunger and thirstiness. Also, when it rains you get all wet and dirty but you still have to keep working. There are a lot of animals like snakes that can harm you.”

Samuel Puentes, age 12, Arizona: “What I like best about being a migrant is that our parents are doing their best so we could have everything we need. Some people make fun of us because our parents work in the fields, but I don’t hear them because I know that is an important job.

What I like least is that when my dad travels to another place I have more responsibility at home. I have to go pick up my brothers and be sure they eat, do their homework, and a lot of things. The good thing about it is that I learn to be more responsible. I also hate that sometimes we don’t get to see him on holidays.

I would love other youth to know that being a migrant is hard, but it also makes me stronger as a person.”

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What Can You Do?

  1. Educate yourself and other kids about the issue of child labor. For example, organize a viewing of the 11-minute film Children in the Fields from the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, which can be seen here.
  2. Write to your congressperson to ask for stronger laws to protect child farmworkers and for higher wages for farmworkers.

Statistics, photos and children’s testimonies courtesy of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs