May 5, 2010

III. Child Farmworkers in the United States

No one knows exactly how many children under the age of 18 are working in US agriculture.[4] Counting farmworkers is difficult: the work changes with the growing season, children and adults move in and out of the workforce, and migrants work outside their hometowns and countries. Many lack telephones and mailing addresses that are essential for most surveys conducted by the government. Roughly half of farmworkers lack work authorization and growers employ others off the books, giving incentives to both parties for workers not to be counted. Data about child agricultural workers are at best several years old and not comprehensive. Even where adults are working legally, children may not be officially employed but their work counted towards their parents’ pay instead. Despite grueling hours and difficult and dangerous tasks, even their parents may consider them “helpers,” not workers. And teenagers under age 18 may not be visibly distinguishable from young adults.

Despite the scarcity of data, conservative estimates make clear that hundreds of thousands of children are working as hired laborers in agriculture, making up a significant proportion of the country’s estimated 2.3 million employed workers who are below age 18.

Farm operators reported hiring 2,636,509 farmworkers in 2007, directly hiring 211,588 children under age 18 in 2006.[5] Adjusting for differences in dates and other factors, researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimate that about 9 percent of directly hired farmworkers were under age 18 in 2006.[6] These data exclude children working on their own families’ farms, for labor contractors, or off the books and thus not reported by farm operators.[7] Given that farmers rely on labor contractors to hire 15 percent or more of their crop workers,[8] and that about 497,000 children under age 18 worked on the farms on which they resided in 2006,[9] these figures represent significantly fewer than all children working in US agriculture.

Farmworkers under age 18 can be found working all across the country. Particularly large populations of farmworkers live and work in California, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Oregon, and Washington State. [10] Virtually no state is without child labor in agriculture, and certainly no state fails to benefit from children’s farmwork, as the produce that is harvested and packed by youngsters' hands may travel thousands of miles to grocery store shelves.

A sizeable minority—somewhat less than 40 percent—of hired farmworkers are mobile, meaning that they move for work. Most of these travel between their homes and a single location; only about 10 percent “follow the crops,” traveling to multiple locations as the season progresses.[11]Migrants travel north each year through three rough “streams” in the eastern, mid-western, and western regions of the country. 

Farmworkers are overwhelmingly poor: poverty among farmworkers is more than double that of all wage and salary employees in the United States.[12] The average individual annual income of crop workers was between $12,500 and $14,999 in 2005-2006, the most recent year for which data are available. Total family income averaged between $15,000 and $17,499 annually.[13] Non-supervisory crop workers are the poorest of all agricultural workers: in 2006 their median weekly earnings were less than that of livestock farmworkers, janitors, and maids.[14] “In migrant camps as soon as you are old enough you have to go to work to earn for your family,” the director of a program providing social services for migrants explained. “Typical families we work with [in Florida] earn $7,000 to $10,000 a year. Per family.”[15]

The national impact of the recent US financial crisis on farmworkers has not been documented. Human Rights Watch received reports in some places of persons returning to farmwork after having lost preferable jobs, and reports elsewhere that such a shift had not occurred as anticipated since many people are simply unwilling to do such hard and low paying work. We heard reports in Florida, where some workers had been able to stop migrating to other states by finding construction and other work during the off season, of workers returning to Mexico and remaining there rather than resuming migration. Elsewhere service providers said that workers they had expected to return to Mexico  instead remained in the United States, in part because crossing the border (in  either direction) had become even more expensive and dangerous.[16]


[4]The government estimates that approximately 2.3 million adolescents ages 15 to 17 worked in all kinds of jobs (including agriculture) in the U.S. in 2008, but this estimate excludes children under age 14 who can work only in agriculture. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Centers for Disease Control, “Young Worker Safety and Health,” January 13, 2010, (accessed April 3, 2010).

[5]Emails from John Myers, Health Statistician, NIOSH, to Human Rights Watch, April 5 and 7, 2010 (citing 2007 Census of Agriculture for total agricultural workers and NIOSH 2006 research on children directly hired by farm operators). These numbers, which are based on telephone reports from the farmers themselves, include adults and children working in both crops and livestock. See US Department of Agriculture, “2007 Census of Agriculture,” 2009, table 7, p. 336, and appendix B, p. B-13.By comparison, the US Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), which does not count working children under age 14, found that 3 percent of hired crop workers were ages 14-17 in 2005-2006. US Department of Labor, “The National Agricultural Workers Survey: Public Access Data,” (accessed April 27, 2010).

[6] Emails from Myers, April 5 and 7, 2010.

[7] Ibid.

[8]US Department of Labor, “The National Agricultural Workers Survey: Public Access Data,” (accessed April 27, 2010) (data from 2005-2006). Farm labor contractors are central to the structure of agricultural production in the United States. Farm labor contractors range in size from single individuals to large corporations. Under contract to a grower or farmer, a farm labor contractor typically is responsible for hiring and overseeing the workers and ensuring that the work—planting, pruning, weeding, harvesting—is completed satisfactorily. Farm labor contractors usually are paid a lump sum by the growers, which they then use to secure labor as needed and in turn charge hired farmworkers in exchange for arranging employment, further reducing their pay. Kandel, “Profile of Hired Farmworkers, A 2008 Update,” p. 22 (see also p. 25). Where a farm labor contractor is used, the grower may have no direct contact with the workers. Either the employer or the farm labor contractor might set the rate at which wages will be paid, but it is the farm labor contractor who recruits and contracts with the workers, pays the wages, makes payroll deductions, and often transports the workers to the work site each day (often for a fee).

[9] Email from Kitty J. Hendricks, Division of Safety Research, NIOSH, to Human Rights Watch, April 12, 2010.

[10] According to data from the US Census Bureau Current Population Survey, almost half of all hired farmworkers live in just five states: California, Texas, North Carolina, Washington, and Oregon. USDA Economic Research Service, “Rural Labor and Education: Farm Labor,” March 31, 2008, (accessed April 3, 2010).

[11] Ibid. (citing data from NAWS through 2006). “Migrating hired farmworkers exhibit different demographic and employment profiles from settled farmworkers: they are younger, more likely to be male, and more often Hispanic.” Ibid.

[12]Kandel, “Profile of Hired Farmworkers, A 2008 Update,” p. iv.

[13]US Department of Labor, “The National Agricultural Workers Survey: Public Access Data,” (accessed April 27, 2010). Twenty-eight percent said that they or someone in their household had used at least one type of public assistance program in the previous two years (most commonly Medicaid (23 percent), Women Infants and Children (13 percent) and food stamps (6 percent)) but less than 1 percent reported that they or someone in their family had received general assistance welfare or temporary assistance to needy families (TANF). Ibid.

[14] Kandel, “Profile of Hired Farmworkers, A 2008 Update,” pp. 20-21. Median weekly earnings for crop farmworkers in 2006 were $350/week, compared with $425/week for livestock farmworkers, $420/week for janitors, and $360/week for maids. Ibid.

[15] Human Rights Watch interview with program director, Bradenton, Florida, March 20, 2009.

[16] The numbers of new arrivals to the US from Mexico dropped from 653,000 between March 2004 and March 2005 to just 175,000 between March 2008 and March 2009, the lowest total in the decade. Migration Policy Institute, “Migration and the Global Recession:A Report Commissioned by the BBC World Service,” September 2009, (accessed April 14, 2010) p. 19 (citing US population survey data). However, according to the Migration Policy Institute, “the recent steep slowdown in the flows from Mexico is largely driven by unauthorized Mexican migrants staying home, primarily in response to limited economic prospects in the United States . . . [and] the flow of legal immigrants from Mexico has not changed.” Ibid. (emphasis in original).