Children in the Fields: Protections for America’s Child Farmworkers
with Sally Greenberg of the National Consumers League
Hundreds of thousands of child laborers in the U.S. help to harvest our country’s produce, sometimes working long hours and in hazardous conditions.
Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of the National Consumers League, joins host Tetiana Anderson to share the dangers facing child farmworkers in the U.S., and the CARE Act — legislation that would provide child farmworkers with important protections.
Sep 29, 2022
Anderson: Agricultural workers on America's farms provide a necessary service -- harvesting produce that makes its way to your kitchens and favorite restaurants. But workers can be at risk for serious injuries like pesticide poisoning, heat stress, and more. And did you know that up to 400,000 of these workers are children? Most are U.S. citizens. However, many of their parents are undocumented. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Under U.S. law, children can work in agriculture from younger ages for longer hours and in more hazardous conditions than children working in any other sector. Joining me to discuss efforts to protect child farmworkers is Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League. And, Sally, thank you so much for being here.
Greenberg: Delighted to be here, Tetiana.
Anderson: So there have been a number of attempts over the years to change the legislation, to close loopholes, to really protect these child farmworkers. Give us a brief overview of that historical fight and how things have shaped up to this day.
Greenberg: The National Consumers League, which is the organization I lead, started this effort in 1899. That's how long we've been around, trying to protect kids from not working and instead making sure they're in school and not in the fields and farms. And that was all put into federal law in 1938 in the Fair Labor Standards Act. However, kids working in agriculture were exempted. So kids are allowed to work from 12 on. That's very different than the rest of the -- all the other sectors, and they can work for many, many, many hours as long as they're not working in school hours. That's the loophole we're trying to close.
Anderson: And I wanted to talk about that because states are addressing this in different ways, but the fact of the matter is that these loopholes make it nearly impossible to change the system without introducing national legislation. So I'm wondering what work your organization is doing to really close these loopholes.
Greenberg: For decades, we've been supporting a piece of legislation called the CARE Act, and what that would do is put the kids who work in agriculture under the same kind of protections that kids in other sectors have. We have not had success in getting that law passed. I'm not sure that we're ever going to get that law passed, but we will continue to work incredibly hard and raise awareness about the dangers to kids who work in agriculture. They're far more likely to be injured and hospitalized. In fact, 25,000 kids are injured every year. That's three every single day who are injured, and many end up in the hospital or worse. So our goal is to try to get this legislation passed, and we want to get state laws passed, as well, because even though they don't cover every every state, state laws can be incredibly protective. We did have one success. We got pesticides -- kids applying pesticides banned. So kids working in child labor are not allowed to use pesticides.
Anderson: How dangerous is this kind of work, especially for children? And tell us a little bit about who they are and how they're living with their families that contributes to all of this.
Greenberg: Well, children are traveling with their parents, so their parents are migratory laborers, and the kids are traveling with them. And they can be all ages and they go into the fields with their parents. They're not supposed to be there before 12 years old, but we've seen 5-year-olds, 7-year-olds, 9-year-olds. It's very, very hot. Often they're exposed to pesticides, that they're exposed to tobacco, which is very dangerous for kids who are developing. It's not good for adults, either. They're exposed to something called green tobacco illness, but there is also just heatstroke. And so these kids, if they get injured, which they often do -- farm equipment's dangerous and being, you know, at heights and baling hay and climbing on tractors, that is prone to injury, and these are young kids. So they don't maybe have the wherewithal that adults do. Anyway, it's very dangerous work.
Anderson: Who have some of these children become in the face of what's such clear adversity?
Greenberg: Yeah, well, you know, the dropout rate's very, very high for these kids 'cause they're traveling and not getting a continuity in their education. So it's somewhere in the neighborhood of 70% or 80%. But there are a number of great success stories. A woman on our board, Norma Flores López, runs a nonprofit for Latina advocacy. We've got several members of Congress who grew up picking crops. We got an astronaut who broke through. But, you know, the numbers of kids who could do so much better if they had better conditions is just, you know, so significant.
Anderson: So how important would you say is it for everyone to really speak up about this, and what are some actionable steps that we as individuals can take to help protect some of these child farmworkers?
Greenberg: Sure. Well, speak up to your policymakers. Members of Congress can support the CARE Act. There are also some efforts at the Department of Labor to reduce the hazardous conditions kids are exposed to. That's a great effort. And, on the local level and the state level, there's some great state legislators who care about kids that -- if we have the voices of members of the community, who would be shocked to find out that young people 5, 6, 8 years old are picking crops. Speak up to your local elected officials, and let them know you want their support.
Anderson: And, Sally, I know people are going to want to know more about all the work you're doing. What's the website? Where should they go?
Greenberg: nclnet.org is our website and stopchildlabor.org is where we where we look specifically at how child laborers are working on farms in the United States.
Anderson: Sally Greenberg with the National Consumers League, thank you so much.
Greenberg: Thank you for the opportunity, Tetiana.
Anderson: And thanks to you, as well, for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.