By Alexandra Vilchez
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – A pilot program in North Carolina has been launched to protect the life and health of U.S. migrant and seasonal farm worker children, many of whom are Hispanic.
Over the past two months, Emily Drakage has been working as that state’s regional coordinator of the Washington-based Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs’ Children in the Fields Campaign.
Founded in 1971, AFOP is seeking the elimination of discriminatory federal laws that do not protect child farm workers while striving to improve the overall quality of life of farm workers and their families, most of them Hispanic migrants.
Now, through a $1.4 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Children in the Fields campaign is working to build grassroots support in North Carolina and four other key states to combat the exploitation of U.S farm worker children.
The initiative has also been launched in California, Michigan, Ohio and Texas because of their large farm worker populations and because the organization had prior knowledge of child laborers in those states.
“This state (North Carolina) has thousands of migrants in the fields and is an area with a lot of agricultural activity, where the problem of children working in dangerous conditions is very large and growing,” Drakage told Efe Thursday.
Drakage’s mission is to document the amount of child labor in the agricultural sector, educate the public and local leaders about the conditions in which the children work and seek support from other organizations to get these minors out of the fields.
“It’s a very tough problem. There are cultural and linguistic barriers, economic interests, immigration, educational and health problems, but someone has to speak for these workers who have no voice and are unaware of their rights,” Drakage said.
The Fair Labor Standards Act stipulates that the legal age to perform most farm work is only 12 if the minor is accompanied by a parent, while children 14 or older can work unlimited hours in fields before or after regular school hours.
The law also states that agriculture workers must be at least 16 years old to carry out tasks designated by the Department of Labor as “hazardous,” compared with 18 years old for all other industries.
Drakage said she is unsure how many minors harvest sweet potatoes, tobacco, blueberries, tomatoes, small cucumbers and other crops every day in North Carolina’s rural counties.
The organization, however, has found children between 6-10 years old working 10 to 12 hours a day in fields treated with pesticides, in extreme weather conditions and surrounded by machinery with sharp blades.
“There are even 14-year-olds unaccompanied by an adult who are traveling from field to field looking for work,” Drakage said.
AFOP estimates that more than 400,000 children work in the fields nationwide – making up roughly 20 percent of the labor force on farms – and that some 100,000 children and teens are injured each year.
Farm workers earn an average of just $7,000 a year and must pay part of their salary to their employer to cover transport and housing costs. Children earn $1,000 a year.
Children farm workers often miss school, fall behind their peers and face linguistic and cultural barriers that impede their educational development.
AFOP estimates that at least 65 percent of children drop out of high school. EFE