Farmworker children pick and plant crops for your dinner table — they deserve protections

Farmworker children pick and plant crops for your dinner table — they deserve protections
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The agricultural industry and entertainment industry have a few things in common, especially when it comes to children. In both industries children can work with permission of their parents at very young ages. Sadly, many children involved in both industries have experienced things that no child should have to experience, including violence.

Kids working in these industries often see things that are far beyond their years and are exposed to people who are willing and able to prey on them because kids in both industries are desperately trying to hold on to their jobs — although the reasons are often different.

For kids in the entertainment industry, they often choose to work because they are trying to get their big break. For kids in the agricultural industry it is because they are just trying to help their parents make ends meet. Either way you slice it, none of these kids should be exposed to the risks and harms that they are exposed to in either industry.  

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Summer-time makes the situation confronting farmworker children of acute concern. While other kids are preparing for summer vacation, these kids are preparing to work long hours under the hot sun alongside their parents picking and planting crops in one of our nation’s most dangerous occupations.  

In fact, across the United States, there are hundreds of thousands of children younger than 18 years old who are working in the agricultural industry. It is difficult to know exactly how many children are performing the grueling work that is required to plant, pick, process and pack the food that people eat every day. 

For farmworkers — many of whom are immigrants, all of whom are poor and some of whom are undocumented — it is challenging to capture accurate data that reflects both the percentage of children working in one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations, as well as the scope of the work that they are engaged in. One thing that is notable is that unlike almost every other job in the labor market — except for entertainment — Congress has made exceptions to allow children to lawfully work in this industry.

Historically, children have been permitted to work in agriculture at younger ages, for longer hours and under more hazardous conditions than other working children. Like most other agricultural workers, they remain excluded from basic protections provided to workers in other industries under federal employment laws. Even where protections exist under federal law, they are seldom ever enforced.

Allowing children to engage in agricultural work from a young age can result in long-term negative consequences, especially when the child worker is not employed on a family farm where precautions are taken for the farmer’s children and family members.  Working in agriculture as a child can result in an early end to childhood, and long hours worked at unfair and unlawful wages can pose risks to their overall health and lives. 

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Child farmworkers suffer work-related fatalities at over four times the rate of other young workers — often because exceptions are made that allow farmworker children to operate heavy, dangerous equipment and to be exposed to other hazards.

Yet, great efforts have been taken to strictly limit the possibility of children in other industries from engaging in dangerous work activities or jobs. The demands imposed by doing agricultural work, coupled with the low pay and poor working conditions, result in shocking drop-out rates from school. Aside from these risks, farmworker girls are exceptionally vulnerable to sexual abuse and harassment by supervisors, company owners, crew leaders, co-workers and others.

Sadly, there is something else that both entertainment and agriculture have in common. We know that in both, people with power have yielded it over those who they employ, work with and associate with for purposes of committing sexual violence against them. It happens far too often and has been a dirty secret in both industries for far too long.   

That’s where the CARE Act can help.

While the focus of the CARE Act is on improving the health and safety for all children engaged in agricultural labor, primarily through strengthened general wage and hour protections, the high rates of workplace sexual violence against farmworker women and girls should not be ignored. Particularly given that they are susceptible to this violence due to the overall lack of workplace protections available to them.

The CARE Act seeks to address the differential and disparate treatment of farmworker children to place them on equal footing as other children engaged in the U.S. labor market who already benefit from special protections. It further aims to take a wide view of the existing vulnerabilities that present risks for economic and sexual exploitation, as well as other health and safety hazards.  

The CARE Act is long overdue. As mothers, we want the same thing for farmworker children, our own children and all children. All measures should be taken to minimize any risk of harm against them. The laws of this nation should guarantee this and there should be no dispute over this.

Congress must show that it really cares about keeping all kids safe, including farmworker children, by passing the CARE Act and other laws that will permit our children to be free from violence, harm, and potentially abusive conditions. 

Laura Dern is a multiple time award-winning actress and long-time activist.

Mónica Ramírez is the founder of the nonprofit Justice for Migrant Women, as well as an advocate, organizer and attorney fighting to eliminate gender-based violence and secure gender equity. 

In 2018, Dern brought Mónica as her guest to the Golden Globes as a part of the TIME’S UP action.