The handprints of the children of farmworkers including that of American labour leader and civil rights activist Dolores...

Child Labor in the US: Despite Laws, Kids Work in Agriculture, Fast Food, Industry

Child labor is not a relic of the past.

While most kids looked forward to summer break, José Velázquez Castellano did not. 

An undocumented immigrant and the son of a single mother who had immigrated to the US from Mexico at age 17, Castellano spent his summers working in the scorching-hot fields of North Carolina. When he was eight, he took a job picking blueberries. By his teens, Castellano had moved on to picking tobacco to pay for new school supplies. 

On the farm, workers were paid by the bucket, which Castellano and his fellow child farmworkers struggled to carry. The days were long and, he tells Teen Vogue, when he got home from the tobacco fields his body was so weary he couldn’t bring himself to go outside and play. His feet, he recalls, felt like “concrete bricks.”

As is the case for many tobacco pickers, Castellano felt the effects of nicotine poisoning, which can cause vomiting, dizziness, and breathing problems. But even his meager $7/hour salary helped his mom, also a farmworker, pay the bills. 

Children were treated no differently than adults, Castellano recalls, and even then, at his young age, he understood that no kid should be forced to work under the conditions he faced. “I knew immediately that I should not have been there. But I also knew that if I wasn't, who was going to help my mother pay?” Castellano explains. “It was a dilemma: You're not supposed to be there, but if you're not there, then you're losing out on the money.”

Agricultural work, like the kind Castellano did, is a glaring exception to US child labor laws outlined in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA). The act sets age limits for jobs deemed hazardous, and caps working hours for children younger than age 14. But inspectors still catch companies violating these laws, including well-known franchise restaurants where minors have worked more hours than permitted. 

In February, Wisconsin-based Packers Sanitation Services Inc. paid $1.5 million in penalties after the Department of Labor (DOL) uncovered that the company had hired 102 children, from 13 to 17 years old, in meatpacking jobs where they worked with hazardous chemicals and dangerous machinery. And last July, an Alabama plant that makes car parts was accused of hiring kids as young as 12 in a report by Reuters. In these instances, the government at least had some recourse to punish violators. 

In fiscal year 2021, the DOL uncovered 2,819 minors who were employed in violation of child labor laws, which resulted in around $3.4 million in civil penalties. A federal judge also issued penalties against that Alabama plant in late September, which included ordering the company to sanction management responsible for any violations and provide employee training on compliance with child labor laws.

The plant released a statement saying it “takes seriously its responsibility to fully comply with all applicable laws and regulations” and that it “does not condone the employment of underage workers at its facilities and has never knowingly employed minors to work at its facilities.”

A recent New York Times investigation exposed just how pervasive child labor is in the US, detailing a “shadow workforce” of migrant children, largely from Central America, that “extends across industries in every state.”

While regulatory child labor laws may seem to be common-sense legislation, there has been a push to roll back some of these protections. In 2018, the Trump administration proposed ending rules that prevented teens working in health care from operating dangerous machinery. And since the pandemic's onset, Ohio and Wisconsin state legislatures introduced bills that would expand the number of hours kids under age 16 can work. 

In addition, recent labor shortages and backed-up supply chains have prompted companies to hire more teenage workers. The Biden administration even stepped in to address trucker shortages with an apprenticeship program in its bipartisan infrastructure bill, which passed Congress in 2021. The program lowers the interstate driving age from 21 to 18, a move that faced criticism for making highways potentially less safe and giving companies an excuse to not pay truckers a fair wage.

“You can get away with paying really low wages,” Margaret Wurth, a senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, tells Teen Vogue. “Children aren't necessarily forming unions or able to collectively bargain for better working conditions or feel that they have the power and leverage to stand up for themselves.”

For children working in agriculture, protections are especially minimal. Wurth explains that it's legal for kids as young as 12 to work unlimited hours outside of school with parental approval, allowing young people like Castellano to work 12 to 14 hour days. 

Agriculture is the only industry where children as young as 16 are allowed to do hazardous labor, Wurth continues. Noting the disparity between agriculture and other industries, she further points out that a 16-year-old deli worker cannot use a meat slicer, but a 16-year-old agriculture worker can use a circular saw.

In addition to threats posed by unsafe tools, exposure to pesticides can have harmful, long-term health effects, especially for children. A 2018 US government report found that half of all child labor-related deaths happened in the agriculture industry — though only 3% of working children are in this industry.

Labor exemptions for the agricultural industry have troubling origins. When the FLSA was written in the 1930s, over half of agriculture workers were Black. In May 2021, the executive director of the National Employment Law project, Rebecca Dixon, testified before Congress that denying Black workers protections allowed them to be exploited by white people for their labor. As she stated, “Congress intentionally excluded whole categories of workers from vital protections in order to deny Black people the opportunity for economic and social freedom and to preserve a system where employers could profit off of racist exploitation.”

Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, posits that racism remains a key factor in shaping the discussion of child exploitation in agriculture. Farmworkers still come from marginalized communities, including many Latinx immigrants who are financially vulnerable. Maki adds that farmwork traps kids in a cycle of poverty and prevents them from gaining economic independence. “It really shows how generational this poverty is,” Maki notes. “Once a family starts working in the fields, if the children drop out of school, don't get their high school degree, don't go on to college, the career opportunities for them are quite limited.”

In a September 2022 congressional hearing on protections for agricultural workers, Norma Flores López, the chief programs officer for Justice for Migrant Women and a former child farm worker, echoed Maki’s point. As a kid, she moved many times throughout the year for her parents to find farmwork, which disrupted her schooling and hurt her grades.

“The majority of farmworker youth do not even graduate high school. They drop out at four times the national average,” she said, concluding: “Data clearly shows that agriculture exemptions are to the detriment of child farmworkers.”

At 20, Castellano is in his sophomore year at Tufts University. While he is on track to get a degree from a prestigious university, he knows many of his former peers can’t say the same thing. He recalls seeing many friends go down rockier paths, dropping out to work full-time on the farm and provide for their families or becoming trapped in the school to prison pipeline.

“My family definitely helped me out a lot,” Castellano says. “But other than that, I have absolutely no idea why I'm here and not someone else. Because everyone else deserves an opportunity to do this.”

Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard, a Democrat from California, has a plan to end grueling, low- wage labor for children on farms. The CARE Act, which Roybal-Allard reintroduced in March 2022, would create provisions for pesticide use that could affect child workers, outline greater civil penalties for child labor violations, and create regulations for children in agriculture on par with other industries, while still exempting family farms.

During that September congressional hearing, Republican lawmakers suggested that regulating the farm industry is an attack on honest, hardworking farmers. Some stoked fear about “open border policies.” Others claimed that limiting the ability of children to work on farms prevents them from cultivating a work ethic, often noting that children have positive experiences working on their family farms. 

Advocates working against unjust child labor, including Maki and Wurth, argue that these are unfair comparisons. They say the actual children of farmers don’t face the same grueling hours and conditions that regular child laborers do, and, Castellano observes, farmer’s kids, who are often white, are given different kinds of jobs on the farm than other workers.

“Strengthening child labor laws in agriculture is mostly split down party lines,” Roybal-Allard explains to Teen Vogue. “Not one Republican has cosponsored my bill since I first introduced it in August 2001, but there are members of my own party who represent agriculture districts who are reluctant to support this legislation.”

Efforts to increase regulation in child labor could face steep opposition from agricultural lobbyists, which have previously pushed back on similar legislation. In 2011, for instance, the agricultural lobby balked when the Obama administration introduced new regulations that would limit the kinds of labor children under 16 can perform on a farm. Critics suggested the new regulations would make it illegal for children to use flashlights or help around the family farm

Agricultural lobbyists from organizations such as the American Farm Bureau, a lobbying group that spends millions a year to represent farmers and the interests of the agriculture business, claimed the rules went too far. At the time, Bob Stallman, then president of the American Farm Bureau, said in a speech, “We face challenges from regulators who are ready to downsize American agriculture, mothball our productivity, and outsource our farms.”

Ultimately, the lobbyists won, and the Obama administration retracted the rules entirely — a move that didn’t sit well with activists like Maki: “We really expected [the Obama administration] to say, ‘We are going to engage in a process of consultation with the farm community and the farm safety groups, and we will come up with a version that the farm community can live with.’ They didn't do that. They just said, ‘We're pulling these back.’”

While the CARE Act offers a glimmer of hope for children in agriculture, lobbyists have continued amassing political power. Per OpenSecrets, the Farm Bureau spent over $2 million on lobbying in 2021. 

Wurth believes that to change these laws, increased public awareness is crucial. “I've been doing this work for years, and I feel like we keep trying to break into the headlines in the news cycle and tap into that collective outrage that I feel when I think about this,” she says. “What we're trying to do is give young people who’ve worked in the fields the opportunity to share their experiences, just to make people understand what's really happening. It's a challenge.”

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