After another spring break spent lugging 50-pound buckets of vegetables and using sharp shears to cut onions, Norma Flores López returned to school with her hands too swollen to hold her pencil. She fell behind in her schoolwork. It wasn't the first time.
From age 12, López, who is now 26, worked 12-hour days, seven days a week on farms during peak season. Children must be at least 16 years old to work in most industries in the United States, and generally do so with strict limitations on the number of hours they work. For hazardous work such as manufacturing and mining, the minimum age is 18.
But an exemption for agriculture in U.S. law means employers can hire children as young as 12 , and sometimes younger, to work in the fields. Restrictions on the number of hours children can work outside of school in other industries don't apply here and work deemed particularly hazardous can begin as young as age 16. A low minimum age for farmworkers may have made sense when the Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted in 1938, when family farms needed extra hands to bring in harvests, but agricultural enterprises today are different from those in that era.
There are 400,000 to 500,000 child farmworkers in the United States, according to the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), the majority of whom are U.S. citizens. But since many children do not get paid themselves -- their salary is often rolled into their parents' paycheck -- tracking them can be difficult.
When this happens, "they're not even counted as a head that's working, or as a warm body on the farm," explains Kyle Knight from Human Rights Watch's Children's Rights Division.
With school ending in most states now, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard of California plans to reintroduce the Children's Act for Responsible Employment (CARE) in Congress, to close the loophole. The act would bring age and work-hour standards for children in agriculture in line with existing standards in other industries. "It levels the playing field," says Roybal-Allard, so that children working on farms "would have the same rights and protections as all other children who work in this country."
For years, children's rights advocates have documented the vulnerability of children working in commercial agriculture in the United States. "In terms of fatalities, this is the most dangerous occupation open to kids in the U.S.," Knight says. "These conditions are not what Americans would expect to find in their own country."
Farmworkers are frequently exposed to dangerous pesticides, heavy machinery, and sharp tools, and children are much more vulnerable to the bad effects of these than their older colleagues, according to Levy Schroeder, director of health and safety programs at the AFOP. Deaths from heat exposure and tractor rollovers, and lifelong repetitive strain injuries from stooping for hours on end are just some of the risks that young children face in farm work. "They are not little adults; their bodies have not yet developed," Schroeder says. Children's young immune systems are also particularly susceptible to pesticide exposure, which has been associated with cancer and respiratory and reproductive problems over the long term.
Maria Mandujano, now 20, started working on farms in her home state of Idaho at age 11. "It was just something you had to do to put food on the table," she says, but now she laments the experience. "I wish my parents would have said no, or somebody would have been there to say no," she adds. Mandujano is now studying in college and is trying to lure her younger brother away from the fields. "I always try to explain to him how he can benefit from not working the fields right now, what he could do in exchange," she says. "For example, learning from my own mistakes and not growing up as quickly as I did."
One thing that frequently gets sacrificed is education -- Mandujano is a rarity for making it to college. In fact, young farmworkers are four times more likely to drop out of school than their peers, according to government estimates. López moved around the country for work during her summers and often found herself months behind in school when she returned to her home in Texas in late October. Despite the odds, she graduated with a bachelor's in communications and now works at AFOP to advocate for those less fortunate. "More than half of these kids don't complete high school," she says, "and we continue to allow that to happen."
Members of Congress have been introducing draft legislation like Roybal-Allard's for more than 10 years, but no bill has ever reached a vote. "When we first started ... many of my colleagues were not even aware that there was this double standard when it came to child labor laws," Roybal-Allard says. Support rose to 107 co-sponsors after the bill was last introduced in 2009, but the bill went nowhere.
Farmers' representatives continue to oppose the legislation, arguing that farmwork is "safe, wholesome work for kids," in the words of Frank Gasperini of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. "In towns and suburbs, children can go and work at McDonalds or bus tables in a restaurant, but in rural areas, those opportunities tend not to be there," he says. And besides, he adds, "some of those migrant families need the money that their children help produce."
But the CARE Act would not deny children the experience of working on farms, says Roybal-Allard. By raising the minimum age and increasing protection mechanisms, it would simply allow them to have that experience under the same laws governing every other industry. It also leaves in place an exemption for family farmers, since parents are more likely to look after the health and safety of their own kids on their own farm.
Reflecting on the growth in support for the CARE Act in recent years, Roybal-Allard remains optimistic. "I'm very hopeful that if we start getting the truth out about what is happening in the country with children in agriculture ... we will be able to pass the bill."