At a farmworker camp this past week, sitting on the ground with a plate of rice and tortillas in my lap, I glanced around at the faces of my dinner companions. We were about to begin our theater group’s inaugural performance as a part of Student Action With Farmworkers’ Into The Fields summer internship. During the skit I witnessed the workers’ tired faces dissolve into laughter and recognized that many of these jubilant smiles belonged to young men — aged far beyond their years due to long days of hard work in the fields.
I was reminded of a bus ride in Guatemala, and the seat I shared with a man who told me his story: how he migrates seasonally with his father and brother to work on farms in Canada. When he asked how old I thought he was, I guessed early thirties. “Twenty-one,” he said. I was stunned. Long after I stood on the curb squinting after the brightly-painted school bus receding into the distance, I thought about the man’s lost youth–a year younger than I–and how he hadn’t had the opportunity to continue his education or pursue other goals.
President Obama’s recent memo to stop deporting young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before they were 16 and have graduated from high school is a stride in the right direction. But think of all the children and youth working in the fields who will never even set foot in a high school, and who therefore do not qualify for this exemption. According to data compiled by the National Farmworker Ministry, only ten percent of adult farmworkers surveyed have graduated high school and eighty percent of adult migrant farmworkers function at or below the 5th grade level.
U.S. law sets 12 as the minimum age for farm work, not 16 as is standard for all other industries. Furthermore, while children in other sectors are not permitted to work more than three hours a day during the school year, there are no limits to how many hours children can work in agriculture (NCC). A report from the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP) found that children work in the fields for thirty hours per week on average, often during the school year. The same federal laws that prohibit a 13-year-old from working in an air-conditioned office, still allow that same child to work in 100-degree heat in a strawberry field.
As one Guatemalan youth in Morganton, North Carolina, said, “If we don’t work, we don’t eat. That’s why we don’t go to school.” Although many obstacles lie between migrant children and formal education, the primary barrier is work–magnified by lack of job security and the fact that farmworkers receive the lowest annual family incomes of any U.S. wage and salary workers.
It’s hard for children to stay in school because their personal and familial choices are limited. When these “decisions” become a matter of survival, the short term implications — money for their next meal — become more urgent than the long-term consequences of dropping out of school. Even if a child is able to continue his or her schooling while working only part-time in the fields, “[One] study found that students who work more than 20 hours a week were less likely to do homework, earn A’s, or take college preparatory courses.”
Just this past April, under pressure from farm groups and agribusiness, the U.S. Department of Labor dropped proposed changes in safety regulations that would have prevented children from working in dangerous conditions on farms owned by anyone except for their parents. In response to this disappointing move by the Obama administration, Norma Flores Lopez, Director of the Children in the Fields Campaign at AFOP said:
“Farm work for many children is not a vocation. For the children of farmworkers, whose lives will continue to be put in jeopardy to harvest America’s food, this is not an educational experience to prepare them to own their own farm one day. They are left exposed and unprotected through this move to withdraw the safety rules for children employed in agriculture.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), agriculture is the most dangerous industry for young workers in the United States. For children, risk of injury and chemical poisoning is higher, because their bodies and minds are still growing.
Overall, lack of education for farmworker adults and barriers to accessing education for farmworker children leaves families with no hope for a better life. Those who work hard to feed the country deserve a dignified life, whether they want to continue working in the fields, going to school, or both.
At the farmworker camp in Benson, I wondered whether or not the gangly thirteen-year old kid with the big smile on his face attends school and what his fate will be in another year. I remembered the man’s face in Guatemala, wrinkled before his time, and felt the bus pull away like a rug pulled out from beneath our feet. I felt as though I was witnessing lost potential and trampled dreams.
—Daryn Lane, Student Action With Farmworkers Into The Fields Intern