5 Awful Things I Learned as a Child Laborer (in the USA)
We all love food, because it's delicious and without it we'd all die horribly. We also love the fact that we really don't have to worry where said food came from beyond "the store" or, if you think about it a little harder, "the ground." So what if we were to tell you our favorite foodstuffs are being harvested by tens of thousands of exploited children? This isn't some shady underground child labor ring run by the mafia, either -- it's 100-percent legal in almost every state of the union.
We sat down with Norma Flores, who sweated and toiled in the fields while her peers spent their time doing homework and having childhoods. Here's what she told us about the shockingly modern face of backbreaking child labor ...
Your Food Is Harvested by Children (and It's Perfectly Legal)
The delicious food we find in our local grocery store has a hidden secret much darker than the fact that the stock boy recently changed the expiration dates: one quarter of the food that hits your plate was harvested by an army of child laborers. In exchange for the hundreds of hours of grueling work they put in, they make something like $1000 a year, which is less than it cost to feed Will Smith a single lunch during the filming of Men in Black 3. Here's how Norma Flores described her first "summer job":
"I started working full time when I was 12, but I'd been working in fields since third grade. There's no daycare out [there], so parents bring their kids ... [The kids] start by bringing buckets, water, picking up apples that had fallen off the tree. Casual, light stuff. And they gradually do more and more. It's not uncommon to meet kids who have been working since they were able to walk."
The next developmental milestone is filling out a W-2.
These are migrant farm workers, traveling from one job site to the next with their parents, going where the work is. Norma reported seeing kids as young as seven out in the fields, learning the virtues of soul-grinding menial labor instead of wasting their time playing with their friends or going to school. If you're wondering how these farmers avoid getting busted by the feds, it's because there's nothing to be busted for: according to the U.S. Department of Labor, it's totally okay for children as young as six to toil away in the harsh, unforgiving elements, helping harvest your food with their tiny little hands. Some states have set more strict rules, but still, some 500,000 kids work in American fields every year.
You're welcome to scoff and say that it's good for these kids to get some exercise and learn the value of hard work, but keep in mind there's a reason no other industry allows this. Federal labor laws generally set the minimum work age at 16, and there are a whole bunch of restrictions on how many hours those kids can work and, say, how much poison they can legally inhale in a day. However, farm work is exempt from all these pesky regulations, because it's traditional, and lawmakers are still imagining a wholesome Normal Rockwell scene in which a farmer and his son get up at dawn to milk the cows together.
Case in point: this is what Getty kicked back for "child farm labor."
Instead, dirt-cheap child labor has become a part of the business model. And no, they're not just helping out here and there so they can get their hands dirty:
"When I was out there, it was typical to do 8 to 10 to 12-hour days. At the peak of the season, we worked seven days a week, maybe three weeks straight, with no days off. Then maybe six days a week, eight hours a day. I'd also spend my spring break working in the fields. I don't know if you've ever been to the Rio Grande valley, it's very hot. Very humid. I'd be out there picking onions."
Note how the huge knife is totally something that should be in the hands of a third grader.
So, yeah, we're talking hours that would seem excessive for a coked-up Wall Street trader trying to pay off a catastrophic gambling debt:
"Kids wake up before school and work, then work from when school ends until late at night. Even during the school year, a lot of kids work that way ..."
Depressed yet? No? Because it keeps getting worse ...
The Conditions are Primitive (and They Have to Pay For Them)
Norma and her family had a house in a small South Texas neighborhood, but they only lived there for a small chunk of the year. The rest of the time, they crashed with their farming bosses, and by "crashed" we mean "lived in hastily-constructed shanties held together by duct tape and wishes":
"... you'd be surprised to see what regulations exist for housing and what can constitute housing. It has to have running water, a roof and a door. And that's about it. When we were in Indiana in 2002, our shower was in the basement. When I was a little girl it was full of mice and snakes and spiders, and it was cold, unheated Indiana in the winter. I was washing my hair once, and I noticed a snake curling itself around the shower curtain rod. And I had to get out, but how do you get out when the snake is in between you and the door?"
Luckily, an earlier tenant had left some the greatest repellent on earth in there.
If you're a farmer with a crumbling old shack somewhere on your property (read: every single farmer, ever), congratulations! You've got everything you need to keep entire families of desperate migrant farm workers living by your fields:
The fire extinguisher on the door serves as an uplifting reminder that one day this shit heap may burn down.
Incredibly, what Norma grew up in was even more primitive than that plywood beast:
"In Iowa, we lived in chicken coops converted to apartments, with communal bathrooms and showers. It was the same thing with the laundromat. Those were nice places, by the way ... [some] are huge barracks, no privacy, nowhere to lock up your stuff. Toilets just sitting next to each other with no stalls and walls. You have to sit there, staring at someone staring at you."
Let that sink in -- Norma and her family lived in a goddamned chicken coop. Some people lived in trailers, sharing a single trailer with fifteen to twenty others. Unbelievably, many landowners charge rent for the privilege of living in one of these palaces, which, again, is completely legal.
The listing may have been a little generous in describing this as an "open floor plan."
And as soon as they got settled in to one place, it was time to pack up and move again:
"I'd start school in Indiana, in late August. I'd be in class until the end of apple season, October. Sometimes we'd [stay] into November. We'd travel during the weekend so we wouldn't miss school days, and Monday morning I'd be registering for classes in Texas. In Indiana, I was able to stay up late and study and get A's, but then I'd get to Texas and they'd say 'because of the different school systems' I had to make up a ton of the work. So I was not only catching up, I had to make up all those assignments. I'd have to make up every assignment, quiz, all of this without a tutor or anyone helping me out."
"If Sara had 6 apples and added 4 more, how many more bushels before she's collected enough to escape crippling poverty?"
If you've ever had to switch schools in the middle of a semester, you know what a nightmare it can be. You have to deal with new teachers, new bullies, and new standards of coolness with zero friends in your corner and little chance to make any before the end of the year. And studies show that kids who move frequently have fewer quality relationships and die younger than their more stable peers. And while it's hard enough when you have to move because, say, your dad is the lead singer of Van Halen and you need to follow him on tour, it's even harder when you're trying to find the next round of backbreaking labor:
"It's overwhelming, year after year. Sometimes we'd leave early to try working a different season -- I got pulled out of school in late April once to work the asparagus fields. My parents would enroll me in Michigan for the last few weeks, and I'd just be lost in the curriculum."
Not to mention how depressing it was to have to reread Grapes of Wrath while kind of living it.
And all those springs and summers spent working in the fields gave Norma the dubious advantage of looking like she'd spent her "vacation" getting a tan. Her classmates initially assumed she'd earned it at the beach:
"And then I'd say 'no I got my tan working in the onion fields.' That was the first time I realized every kid didn't do this."
Hey, don't leave yet -- we're still executing our "it gets worse" promise from earlier:
The Work Is Dangerous
Farming is dangerous. In fact, it's the deadliest industry that's still permitted to employ minors. Consequently, more than half the minors who die in job-related accidents in America are killed while farming, and almost none of those deaths were related to impromptu tractor races.
Not that tractors don't still kill shit-tons of kids.
First of all, virtually everything you come into contact with on a farm is poisonous as shit -- chemicals designed to kill bugs and weeds usually aren't the kind of thing you can use as mouthwash. Also, mechanized equipment designed to stab the earth so hard that vegetables start growing out of the wounds aren't the kind of things you want your kid climbing on. Now, as you're probably aware, one of the defining characteristics of young children is their smallness, which makes them exponentially more vulnerable to poisons and more likely to suddenly disappear beneath a wheat thresher. However, as Norma points out:
"Sixteen-year-olds can't operate a forklift on a construction site. But on a farm? It's fine. The pesticide regulation exposure is based on an adult male. Not a woman, not a child."
But at least OSHA does take a hard line to ensure workers under 12 can be paid sub-minimum wage.
So children are legally permitted to be exposed to the same levels of poison as a grown man with years of tolerance-building whiskey consumption. And if you're imagining these kids are prohibited from picking crops that have been proven to be physically harmful to them, then you're hopelessly optimistic -- tobacco is often harvested by children. A kid picking tobacco can make as much as $150 per day, which is more than most liberal arts majors, but it comes with a brutal downside. Researchers with Human Rights Watch interviewed a bunch of these Marlboro Boys and Girls to find out whether all this hands-on time with one of the world's most addictive drugs was doing them any harm. The answer was an emphatic "yes."
Followed by an equally emphatic "duh."
They found that 75 percent of the child tobacco workers interviewed reported "vomiting, nausea, headache, dizziness, skin rashes and burning eyes." Bear in mind, these are kids who are still old enough to go trick-or-treating, complaining of symptoms generally attributed to chemical warfare.
All right, you've come this far, might as well keep going. Here where we find out that ...
It's a Disaster For a Kid's Education and Social Life
Toiling away on a farm and picking crops that smell like monster farts can have a pretty big effect on your social development as a child:
"You also get this smell of onions that you can't shower off. And as a twelve-year-old, the last thing you want is to be brown and smelling of onions."
Most school bullies don't care about the systemic injustices of agribusiness, only that you smell like soup mix.
But the only damage isn't to your social life. Farming is the kind of work that breaks barrel-chested strongmen after a while, so consequently it shatters tiny bodies like church windows in a hurricane:
"I'd have to tell my teachers, from working in those onion fields and using those shears, my hands had gotten so swollen I couldn't hold a pencil. So my mom would have to write my teachers notes to let them know I couldn't do the assignments."
Also, kids who spend all of their free time after school and during the spring and summer breaks working like Dust Bowl farmers aren't doing any extracurricular activities, like reading or learning any kind of non-farming skills. This widens the educational gaps between the rich, the poor, and the kids who'll need to spend two months working in the fields before they can even register as "poor."
"Three more weeks of saving, and we can finally afford pockets to turn out."
"These situations keep setting back and setting back. It was difficult for me to keep up. Fortunately, I'm a smart person, but I saw the classmates who came in late and didn't have my ability to pick up subjects quickly and it added up. It kept getting to be a bigger and bigger problem, and a lot of my family members kept dropping out."
In fact, it's estimated that kids who labor in the fields drop out of high school at a rate four times higher than the national average. And what's the only job those kids can get once they've failed out of school? If you said "farm labor," you are absolutely correct. (If you said "astronaut," we appreciate your optimism). It's a brutal circle of life too depressing to be softened by any number of singing cartoon animals. But in the end ...
They Don't Have a Choice
Some of you are no doubt asking, Why in the hell would her parents allow this? Just because they have shitty jobs doesn't mean they have to inflict it on their kid! But actually, they do:
"Because you're taking up room in their [the farmers'] housing, you have to go work as soon as you're of age. I couldn't ever say no to a day of work, because then my family wouldn't be invited back. There's not a whole lot of choice."
Reminder: invited back here.
And as we previously mentioned, daycare isn't an option. The families who take up work as migrant farmers are poor, and we don't mean "can't afford an iPhone" poor. We mean actual destitution, where they can't afford to pay for food every night:
"My parents would have had to pay someone to watch us. Taking me to the fields removed that cost. My parents really were struggling to make ends meet. It's perfectly legal for us to work too, so why wouldn't they come with us to help make ends meet and buy us shoes? Our family wouldn't be able to pay for meals, etc if we weren't there contributing and helping to bring in that money. Every dime we made was accounted for. To pay for tires for the truck, to catch up with the house payments ..."
But at least if everyone pitched in, we could expect a household income of no more than $19,999.
This lack of options extends beyond the impoverished children who ruin their futures to help oranges along on their journey to your nightly screwdriver. The bottom line is, there simply isn't much money in farming. Only a small minority of farmers earn very much -- the top 5 percent of the farms in America make around 75 percent of the money in agriculture each year. The rest barely make anything, usually having to come up with some non-farming income on the side to pay the bills. It's hard to be sympathetic to the farmers in a story like this, but man. Farming seems awful for everyone.
Laws to change the system go nowhere because, ultimately, this is what society wants. Whether it's from a fast food restaurant, a Walmart, or the food truck out behind your work that got a "D" on its last health inspection, we want our food cheap, and in rib-shattering quantities. Farmers need to keep their costs low if they want to keep their farms, and so they turn to the same source of cheap labor that powered the Industrial Revolution and that train in Snowpiercer: children.
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For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Horrific Things You Learn Preserving Brains for a Living and 5 Hardcore Realities of My Time as a Mormon Missionary.
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