Essay Contest Spotlights the Plight of Child Farmworkers in the US

One of the privileges of working on child labor issues is getting to know the stories of individual child workers who heroically struggle against poverty and the considerable odds that are stacked against them. Thanks to a wonderful annual essay and art contest held by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), the management of the National Consumers League joins fellow leaders of the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) to serve as judges of the contest, through which we gain valuable insight into the plight of America’s most vulnerable young workers.

The CLC, founded by the National Consumers League 24 years ago, has worked for many years to educate the public about the little-known problem of child labor on US farms, where gaps in US child labor law allow children as young as 12 to work unlimited hours—as long as school is not in session. At NCL and CLC, we are particularly worried about the impact of child labor on the sons and daughters of migrant farmworkers who are exposed to dangerous pesticides, hazardous farm machines, and suffer a worrisome dropout rate, as a result of their families’ migration and their exhausting field work.

Unless you’ve witnessed it, it’s hard to imagine how hard working 8-12 hours a day in near 100-degree heat is. Thanks to AFOP’s annual migrant youth essay and art contest we hear firsthand what the experience is like.

Maria Enerida Patino, 13, from Homestead, Florida began her essay, which won in the 10-13 age group, with this description:

The blistering rays of the scorching sun are penetrating through a thin coat of clothing burning my back. Sweat is running down my face, back, neck, arms, and legs. I can feel the heat buildup on my hair slowly sinking its way into my head. My stomach growls, and roars with pain from not having eaten since last night’s supper. I’ve been working since five o’clock in the morning, at least at that time it was cool.

She goes on to note what a life working in the fields has done to her father: “My father worked in the fields all his life. He was exposed to the chemicals that were sprayed on the plants to make them grow and produce fruit faster. When he would sweat the chemicals would slide down into his eyes causing them to turn red. Due to irreversible damage to his eyes they state that way for the rest of his life.”

Maribel Corona, the winning essayist in the 14-18 category, told us about her first day in the field:

I couldn’t take the heat anymore. My head was pounding from the massive headache that I have. My face was boiling; it felt as if my cheeks were going to explode. My back was aching. My legs were sore. My fingers were even numb. Every bone in my body was in pain.

Maria de Jesus Gonzalez, 16, who resides in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and took third prize in the 14-18 age group, pointed out that children are asked to work as hard as adults: “….there are many challenges that we have to face. One of them is to work hard, even if you are child, you have the same responsibilities. You have the same tasks; to carry the same buckets, carry the same amount and enter work at the same time as the adult worker. If one does not do as required, you get sent home.

Stephanie Herrera-Gonzalez, 17, of Bakersfield, California wrote about the grinding poverty that affected her family. She noted her stepfather was forced to work in the fields at a very young  age and lost six of 16 family members members due to “hunger and not being able to pay a doctor.”

“As a migrant kid,” added Stephanie. “I have known what it is like to live in the real world from such a young age. I know all about the early rises, preparing lunches at 4 in the morning, the challenges of language barriers, the need to travel and work in any season no matter how cool or how hot it is, how important [it] is to make sure a job is kept and the constant need to adapt  to new environments.”

Alexa Alvarez, a 13-year-old from San Luiz, Arizona–the birthplace of famed farmworker leader Cesar Chavez–reminded us that the sacrifices of adult and child farmworkers “often go unnoticed.”

“I am proud to say that these are the people I admire. Their struggles should be recognized,” added Alexa.

The CLC continues to fight to level the playing field for farmworker children and end the cycle of poverty that afflicts migrant farmworker families in the U.S. Please urge your member of Congress to support the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment, HR 2342, which would remove the loopholes that allow children in agriculture to work unlimited hours at age 12 and help protect older teens from hazardous farm work.