Children of the field

Children of the field
Burt Baldwin - 07/20/2023

My wife and I took a road trip during Christmas week to visit family in the San Francisco Bay Area. We decided to rent a car and take the northern route through northern Arizona and Utah.

Our journey would take us right through California’s great Central Valley, where almost three quarters of our nation’s vegetables and fruits are grown.

Most Americans are unaware that more than 85% of our produce is harvested by American migrant labor in the Central Valley. I specifically use the word “American,” because they are American citizens. A majority may be of Latino heritage, but they, too, are not immune from taxes. Other migrant workers that share the agricultural labor force are foreign nationals and are usually “green card” holders or guest workers. These laborers also pay taxes but reap no benefits due to the fact that they are not citizens. There are also countless illegals crossing the border searching for work, many under the age of 15.

What is rarely mentioned publicly is the fact that over a half million “American” migrant children work in agriculture. Every state in the U.S. has American youth working on farms, many of whom are under the age of 12. These kids sometimes work 14-hour days, others five to six hours per day, seven days a week. The youngest do not have Social Security cards but are allowed to work legally with the permission of their parents, some as young as 6 years. Many of these migrant families are barely surviving, so every able-bodied member of the family is on the job. The irony is that many migrant families can’t even afford to buy the vegetables and fruits they picked.

The law requires migrant children to attend school. Many work on weekends, or before and after school. These groups of youth are at the highest risk of becoming dropouts. Countless numbers of these students are held back, because they haven’t finished the required hours, or their transcripts have been lost in the mail as they are constantly transient.

During the Depression, laws were passed to create incentives for helping farmers remain on the land. The 1938 labor laws excluded children working in agriculture from the same humane labor protections required by other industries hiring children in the workforce. Nothing much has changed. As a result, migrant American children are still being exploited by these draconian laws.

Picking strawberries, cucumbers, apples and tomatoes is very labor-intensive. Child workers spend much of their time bent over or kneeling to harvest these crops. Temperatures in fields may reach 100-plus degrees. The noxious odors from pesticides and fertilizers are constantly inhaled without protection for the laborer. Some cover their faces with a bandana. These environmental factors compromise the safety and health of working children. Many contract such conditions as asthma or emphysema.

Aside from health risks, a typical tomato picker receives about a dollar for every 25-pound basket that is delivered to the depot. It takes all day to fill 30 of these baskets per individual. Many of these children are victims of heat stroke, dehydration or exhaustion trying to meet extreme quotas. Some elementary-aged children are paid as low as 25 cents an hour and can be found working in fields till dark on school days. According to the National Farm Workers Ministry, at least 30% of farm worker families are below the national poverty guidelines. They are part of a growing populace known as “the working poor.” 

As elections near, it is paramount that voters support lawmakers who are willing to repeal the articles of the 1938 labor laws that allow the exploitation of children. Voters should also support lawmakers who are willing to introduce legislation to guarantee a national wage increase that allows for the lower working classes to make a real living wage.

Workers, whether they labor in factories, mines or in the fields, whether they are women, students or children, all deserve to live in dignity. It is my belief that the intention of progressive reforms is not to destroy the capitalist endeavor but rather to reform it; to make it sustainable and fair for every citizen. As we see the divide between the super wealthy and middle class grow, we forget that for the poor it is compounded.

The America I trust is the America that is willing to provide for the greater good of all.

Children need to be fed, comforted and allowed to learn. It is not a hopeful American dream; it is an American right. If a political revolution is to take root in this country, it must be an active revolution, constructive, humane and all-inclusive.

The children of the fields deserve nothing less.