Children in the Fields
By John Biewen - Correspondent

Part of The Forgotten Fourteen Million

  Emma Mata unloads a bag of apples near Mattawa, Washington.
(click for larger view)
When Americans talk about the problem of child labor, they're usually talking about other countries. The U.S. banned most kinds of work by young children decades ago and certainly dangerous work - except in the nation's orchards and fields. Farmworker advocates say agriculture is the last big stronghold of dangerous child labor in the United States. Much of that labor is legal. And most of the children doing it are poor.

SANTIAGO AND EMMA MATA work side by side inside a natural tunnel formed by overlapping branches of Granny Smith apple trees. They wear gloves and surgical masks to guard against dust and pesticide residue. It's a crisp, perfect October day near Mattawa, in south-central Washington State. The Matas are not migrants. Like thousands of farm workers in this part of Washington, they live here year-round.

"I work all the time," Santiago says through an interpreter. "Picking cherries, picking apples, trimming and pruning the trees ... "

The Matas pluck the green apples with smooth, rapid motions, quickly filling the canvas bags strapped over their shoulders. Every few minutes, each of them climbs down to lay a bagful into a squat, wooden bin the size of a big freezer chest very gently, to avoid bruising.

Together, the husband-and-wife team can fill a 900-pound bin in half an hour. This orchard pays 12 dollars a bin, so it's a good day; the Matas are each making about $12 an hour.

"But it depends," says Emma, as she empties her sturdy canvas bag. "Sometimes, when there's a good, long row with lots of fruit on the trees, we make good money. But if there are other workers near us and not much fruit, we don't make much."

Economists who study the industry say on average, hired farm workers make $6 or $7/hour, with no health coverage, workers' compensation coverage, or overtime pay. Between seasons, farm workers live through long stretches of unemployment. So the average farm worker in the US earns about $7,000 a year.

"I strive to pay a fair wage, and I believe that we do, I believe that we do," says Larry Knudson, 59, who owns a midsize orchard outside of Yakima.

Knudson is blunt but amiable; he wears a wide-rimmed leather hat and scuffed canvas jacket. "Our base wage on this operation is $6.75 an hour," he says proudly. His speech grows halting, though, when he's asked how his workers get by. "All my year-round people, they're all raising families and ... are living ... fine."

Luis and Jose Hernandez pick crops to help support their family of eight.
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Helping Pay the Bills

"I sleep [on] the floor, because I feel better on the floor," explains 13-year-old Luis Hernandez, giving a tour of the small house where he lives with his parents and five siblings in Toppenish, Washington. "My big older brother, he sleeps right there, in the bed."

The bed is right. It's the only one in the house. The four younger children sleep on thin mattresses on the living room floor, Luis says matter-of-factly. "And my dad and my mom, too."

Luis's parents, Juan and Antonia, are Mexican immigrants. Their children were all born in the U.S. The Hernandez' don't work for Larry Knudson, but, like his year-round employees, they make more than the average farm worker family $18,000 last year, they say. That's still $10,000 below the federal poverty line for a family of eight.

To ease the burden slightly, Luis and his 14-year-old brother, Jose, work sometimes, too. Jose picked cherries last summer, then kept working after school started, harvesting apples on weekends through mid-October.

"Not all day, but in the morning [until] 3 p.m.," he says in an adolescent's shy monotone. "To help my parents get money to pay the bills and all that."

Antonia and Juan Hernandez seem sensitive to questions about their sons doing farm work. They say they don't require the boys to work.

"No, they wanted to come and help us," Antonia says in forceful Spanish. "It was their idea."

The eldest boy, Jose, goes to the orchards, Juan explains, "so [Luis] wanted to go too. Because he wanted to make some money. We let them keep some. Only a little, but some."

"It's OK for a kid under 14 to work in the fields using knives and machetes and other sharp cutting instruments, but they can't work under 14 in an air-conditioned office collating paper."

- Diane Mull

Media reports often focus on illegal child labor in agriculture. But it's legal for 14-year-old Jose to work in the orchards. Thirteen-year-old Luis broke state law by picking cherries last summer; cherry orchards are off-limits in Washington until age 14. But at 13, he could work legally in cucumber, berry, and spinach fields. Agriculture's child labor laws vary from state and state and crop to crop, but as a rule they're more lenient than in any other industry. That's true in most states, and it's strikingly true at the federal level. That despite the fact that farming ranks with mining and construction as one of the most dangerous industries.

"It's OK for a kid under 14 to work in the fields using knives and machetes and other sharp cutting instruments, but they can't work under 14 in an air-conditioned office collating paper," says Diane Mull of the Washington D.C.-based Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs.

Mull estimates 800,000 children work legally and illegally in agriculture. Hard numbers aren't available. One census bureau estimate says 155,000 minors work on farms, but that survey didn't count kids under 15. A recent survey in Wisconsin found 92% of farm workers' children over the age of 12 worked in the fields.

Farm leaders insist their industry has the most relaxed labor laws for good reason.

"The average agricultural producer is a very, very small business," says Bryan Little, chief lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation. "And family farms by and large cannot succeed without relying on the efforts of family and friends and extended family and anybody else you can find to try to come and drive the truck, drive the combine ... and do stuff like that when you're trying to get the harvest in before it rains."

But that communal picture of child labor is largely outdated, statistics show. The Census Bureau says only a quarter of kids working on farms are the children or neighbors of farm owners. Three-fourths are hired laborers.

A report last fall by the National Research Council's Institute of Medicine called on the government to tighten restrictions on child labor especially on farms. Working on farms can be healthy for children if the work is safe and doesn't go on too long, says commission member Barbara Lee, a rural Wisconsin physician. "But if you put them into a situation where they're actually taking the place of an adult laborer, you have to ask the question: Would it be acceptable in any other industry? And if it is not, then we have to say we've got a problem here," Lee says.

Children At Risk

Luis Hernandez worked on the cherry harvest for just a few days last summer. That's because in the first week, just before his 13th birthday, he took a break to play, and got seriously hurt.

"I was standing on a ladder," he recalls. "When I got off, I was playing with the guy, a friend, that was on a tractor. I was playing with him, throwing cherries. Then I tripped, and when I tripped, the tire, it ranned over me and stopped right here on the middle of my stomach."

Luis's mother, Antonia, was working on a ladder nearby. She screamed when she saw the tractor's flat-bed trailer, loaded with bins of apples, knock Luis down and roll onto his chest.

"[The driver] heard me and he stopped and looked down," Antonia says. "The wheel had come up just short of Luis's head. The driver then backed off him."

Luis was flown to a hospital in Seattle with a bruised heart and blood in his lungs. He's O.K. now. But a 17-year-old boy picking peaches in Utah last summer was not as lucky; he died of a brain hemorrhage after being sprayed accidentally with pesticides twice in one week.

Teenage farm workers make up just 4% of all employed teens, but a much higher 25% of those killed on the job.

Farm groups say those figures overstate the danger to young hand laborers. Most of the kids killed on farms are those who live there, says Mike Gempler of the Washington Growers League; they are far more likely to handle dangerous machinery and pesticides.

"But for somebody who is involved in a fieldwork position, who's not working around concentrated forms of pesticides, who is handling a piece of fruit that is going to be sold and marketed the next day, the threat is not there at all," Gempler says. "The hard evidence doesn't stack up."

But critics counter that there's no hard evidence either way. Federal officials acknowledge that the long-term effects of pesticide exposure on field workers have never been studied. Farm worker advocate Diane Mull points out federal standards for when workers can enter a field after pesticides have been sprayed are based on the estimated risk to an adult male not a child.

"We're using these kids, we're using farm workers, as guinea pigs, to really look at what intensive pesticide exposures are," she says. "If you look at that population and you know that they're largely minority, that's an even more egregious form of discrimination."

Farm worker advocates say the best way to curb child labor in agriculture is to reduce the need for children to work, by raising the wages paid to adult farm workers. Farm employers reply that they couldn't compete in global markets if they had to pay much more.

The Forgotten Fourteen Million


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