May 5, 2010

IV. The Youngest Workers

I’ve been working since 11. The age to start working at this ranch is usually 12 but I started at 11. My parents said we needed to earn as much as possible because we had a lot of debt. Everything [I earn] goes to my parents because they know what to do with it.
My sister said all day, “Hurry up!” I was a little kid. It was hard at first to carry boxes, count 24, and pack boxes. I used to do stuff I couldn’t even imagine. “Pick up this,” can I do it? . . . I was a kid. I was used to playing with toys. They took me to their fields and I was like, “Where am I?” They gave me basic instructions, pick greens, cut them, package them, weed the fields. . . . You can’t imagine how hard it can be to start a year younger than you’re legally qualified to work. I had to learn things fast and learn the ways of the field. . . .
Growing up has been hard. . . . When I’m in the fields working and I wait for people to fill the boxes, I look around and I see 12 year olds working around. I know how they feel. I used to feel like that. They have a face that says they don’t want to be here. They start getting used to the fact that they have to work. Putting in more effort. Experiencing more. They learn if they work faster they earn more and there will be less debt.
—Jose M., age 17, Saline, Michigan, August 24, 2009
I don’t know about it [child labor]. I don’t look for it but I don’t see it.
—Farm operator, Michigan, August 28, 2009

Children typically described going to work full-time outside of school at age 11 or 12. Even very young workers, ages 7, 8, 9, are not difficult to find working in the fields, however. Human Rights Watch interviewed children who said they picked strawberries at ages seven and eight in Florida, picked blueberries at age seven in Michigan, picked and shucked green peas in Virginia at age eight, and hoed cotton at ages seven, eight, and nine in Texas. “When I was seven I worked in the field next to our house because they needed help with strawberries,” 14-year-old Olivia A. told Human Rights Watch. “We would turn in some card things and they would give us money and we would give it to my mom. I gave it to her to buy food.”[17] Her older brother James A. also said he started working that year, at age eight.[18] Children this young typically work only part of the day and attend school, at least when their families are at home and are not migrating to work elsewhere.

The concept of “underage” labor in US law is not as clear in agriculture as it is in all other labor sectors. Under the law, on small farms with parental permission, outside of school hours, there is no minimum age for workers. Children ages 12 and 13 can work for any size farm with their parent’s consent outside of school hours; children 14 and 15 can work on any size farm without parental consent outside of school hours; there are no restrictions on employing children ages 16 and older, including in hazardous agricultural occupations. By comparison, in nonagricultural settings, employment of children under age 14 is prohibited, and children ages 14 and 15 may work only in certain jobs designated by the Secretary of Labor and for only limited hours outside of school. Children ages 16 to 18 can work in nonagricultural occupations but cannot do hazardous work.[19]

Despite these weak laws for agriculture, some growers and farm labor contractors still violate the standards in their hiring practices, including:

  • hiring children under age 16 to work during school hours or in hazardous work;
  • hiring children under 14 to work without their parent’s consent; and
  • hiring children under 12 to work on farms that are not “small,” meaning farms that have about 7 or more employees.[20]

In interviews with Human Rights Watch, most children said that no one asked them their age or for proof of it. “Age doesn’t matter,” said Marta V., age 13, who had hoed cotton since age seven in Texas.[21] A young woman who worked in California starting at age 12 said that no one asked her age or for any papers.[22] At one farm in Michigan and one in Texas, children alternately told us they had to be 11 or 12 to work: “Only the little ones they ask their age but 11 and up is ok.”[23]

Most children said they started working full time at age 11 or 12. Human Rights Watch interviewed boys and girls who at those ages were working adult shifts picking oranges and cucumbers, pulling asparagus, cutting greens and Christmas trees, hoeing cotton and cucumbers, and weeding by hand.

Children described how they felt when they first worked. A girl who started cutting greens and pulling green onions and radishes full time at age 12 said, “At first I thought it was cool but then when I worked actually it was miserable. I cried every day.”[24]

Other children emphasized the physical hardships. A 12-year-old boy said on his first day hoeing at age 11 he got very tired: “I felt weak. My back hurt. I got blisters on my hands and on my feet when I took off my shoes.”[25] Another boy described his first day of hoeing cucumbers at age 12: “The first day I was exhausted. It was my first job.”[26]

Older teens and young adults often described how their initial enthusiasm to contribute to the family later evolved to despair in the face of such tedious, grueling, and poorly paid work. The account of Hector H. from Idaho was typical of those who started working at young ages: “At first I liked it, but then I realized it wasn’t that good. It was too hard with the sun. It was boring. It’s a long day to be working. At [age] eight or nine I was hoeing cotton. There were big weeds, three or four feet tall. . . . It gets harder by the year, doing the same thing every year. You get tired of it. I’ve pretty much done the same thing since I was eight years old.”[27] Mauricio V. told us: “I thought it would be heroic and honorable. I couldn’t wait until when I turned 12 and they let me work in the summer. . . . I definitely feel different about it now. . . . I was trying to find something to be proud of, an honorable thing to be. Like ‘yes, I do support my family by working.’”[28]

Why Children Work

We can hire as many adult workers as we need. We don’t need to hire children.
—Tony Marr, general manager for Adkin Blue Ribbon Packing Company, assessed child labor penalties in 2009 after a US Department of Labor investigation found children as young as six years old picking in its fields[29]

Children told Human Rights Watch that they worked to help their families buy food, to repair the family’s truck, to pay the phone bill, and to buy school clothes and supplies. For example, Luz A., who said she started working at age nine, told Human Rights Watch: “I really didn’t decide to work. I had to because my mom was having difficulty raising us and providing us with everything we needed. It was ok with me even though it was hard work because I was helping out. It paid for food for our family to eat and school, the things [for school] they were always asking for us to bring.”[30] Andrea C. said: “I feel pressure to work sometimes. When we get all filled up with bills, we need the money. The car bill, the phone bill, the insurance. I have two older brothers but they got married so I’m the only one who helps my parents. And they’re getting kind of old.”[31]

Financial need and a sense of family responsibility can push children to prioritize work above their own education and health. Ana Z., who was hoeing cotton with a fever, told us: “I have to, I have to help my mom. . . . So at least me, I do my 10 hours. We don’t miss out. We go every day, even sick. We’re just trying to make a living.”[32]

When asked, parents gave a variety of reasons for sending their children to work. Some described a financial crisis or the need to meet basic expenses. Some said that they had to bring their children to the fields anyway, that they could not afford childcare, and wanted to keep their families together, especially when migrating. In the fields even young children who are not working are exposed to pesticides, heavy machinery, and other hazards. “I bring the kids here because I can’t pay a babysitter,” said a woman caring for her four-, six-, and seven-year-old grandchildren. “It’s dangerous. They could get bitten by an animal. Run over by a machine.” Childcare would cost her $15 per child per day, she said, but she earns only $45 to $50 a day hoeing cotton.[33] Human Rights Watch also visited labor camps where teenage girls and women rotated to provide child care in the camps during the workday because farm operators had prohibited very young children from being in the fields.

Some children described waiting to work until they turned 12, suggesting that the law influenced their families’ decisions to send their children to work. “Teachers at school know when kids turn 12,” Jose M. told us. “They see the cuts on their hands. They know a child at 12 goes to work. No if’s, and’s, or but’s.”[34] Others described a family and community tradition that made it normal to work and employers who were willing to hire them.

Several parents expressed regret over having sent their children to work and over the long-term effects it had.[35] One woman, who said her perspective changed after enrolling in a high school equivalency (GED) program, told Human Rights Watch: “When you hear the children talk, you feel bad because you’ve taken a whole childhood away and you don’t realize it because you’re thinking about trying to make payments. . . .  For my kids summer was not summer. They had to work. It makes me feel guilty.”[36] One mother whose 11-year-old daughter worked hoeing cotton and caring for her younger brothers said, “I tell my daughter, ‘I’m so sorry I stole your childhood from you.’”[37]

[17] Human Rights Watch interview with Olivia A. (not her real name), age 14, Plant City, Florida, March 21, 2009.

[18] Human Rights Watch interview with James A. (not his real name), age 15, Plant City, Florida, March 21, 2009.

[19] 29 U.S.C. sec. 213.

[20] A "small farm" is one which did not employ more than 500 man-days of agricultural labor during any calendar quarter of the preceding year. 29 U.S.C. sec. 213(a). Five hundred man-days would typically be reached by seven employees working six days a week during a calendar quarter. Human Rights Watch, Fingers to the Bone (New York: Human Rights Watch, June 2000),, p. 38 note 113.

[21] Human Rights Watch interview with Marta V. (not her real name), age 13, Plainview, Texas, July 21, 2009.

[22]Human Rights Watch interview with Julia N. (not her real name), age 18, Benson, North Carolina, August 5, 2009. Unlike federal law, California state law sets 12 as the minimum age to work and requires employers to obtain work permits before employing minors under age 18.

[23] Human Rights Watch interview with Martin P. (not his real name), age 12, Plainview, Texas, July 21, 2009.

[24] Human Rights Watch interview with Andrea C. (not her real name), age 17, Saline, Michigan, August 24, 2009.

[25] Human Rights Watch interview with Martin P., age 12, Plainview, Texas, July 21, 2009.

[26] Human Rights Watch interview with Lucas F. (not his real name), age 17, Walkerville, Michigan, August 26, 2009.

[27] Human Rights Watch interview with Hector H. (not his real name), age 18, Plainview, Texas, July 20, 2009.

[28] Human Rights Watch interview with Mauricio V. (not his real name), age 19, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, August 6, 2009.

[29] Bob Luder, “Department of Labor Levies Fines for Child Labor Violations,” The Packer, October 30, 2009, 342&fid=PACKER-TOP-STORIES (accessed April 22, 2010).

[30] Human Rights Watch interview with Luz A. (not her real name), age 18, Plant City, Florida, March 21, 2009.

[31] Human Rights Watch interview with Andrea C., age 17, Saline, Michigan, August 24, 2009.

[32] Human Rights Watch interview with Ana Z. (not her real name), age 15, Plainview, Texas, July 21, 2009.

[33] Human Rights Watch interview with Rosa M. (not her real name), Plainview, Texas, July 21, 2009.

[34] Human Rights Watch interview with Jose M., age 17, Saline, Michigan, August 24, 2009.

[35] For example, Human Rights Watch interview with mother and health outreach worker, Jackson County, North Carolina, August 4, 2009.

[36] Human Rights Watch interview with mother and former child farmworker, Bradenton, Florida, March 20, 2009.

[37] Human Rights Watch group interview with mother, 10-year-old son, and 11-year-old daughter, Plainview, Texas, July 20, 2009.