Little Choice For Children of Migrant Workers

Lack of child care and dangerous conditions in migrant labor camps lead many farmworkers to take their children along with them to the fields. The younger ones may play or wait in the car; the older ones often end up picking crops themselves. Fields of Peril: Child Labor in U.S. Agriculture, a 2010 report by Human Rights Watch, found that “hundreds of thousands of children are working as hired laborers in agriculture.” Under federal and most state laws, children as young as 12 are permitted to do agricultural work, with few limitations or protections.

During the summer berry harvest, when neither school nor Head Start (federally funded preschool for low-income children) is in session, “you do see way more kids in the fields,” said Andrea Schmitt, an attorney at Columbia Legal Services. “This is completely a social problem, not a problem of individual parenting, but there are a lot of parents who are bringing their kids into the fields when they’re 8. It’s because any extra hands are needed to make a living and because they don’t have child care.”

Farmworker have had trouble applying for and retaining public child-care subsidies because of their shifting residency and fluctuating income. Applicants for child-care assistance must submit employment-verification documents and pay stubs, none of which are designed for seasonal workers earning per-pound pay rather than an hourly wage or salary. A single paycheck may not reflect reality: In 2010 the median annual income for farmworkers nationwide was less than $19,000.

Family attachments are a major difference between seasonal workers, who arrive with their spouses and children, and guest workers, who show up alone. Working parents tailor their migration not only to the farming calendar but also to the children’s needs.

“These families, in their cultures, are always together,” said Kathy Barnard, a lawyer at Schwerin Campbell Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt who litigated on behalf of the Sakuma Brothers Farms workers in state court. “They work together. They live together. So the parents are around the children all the time. Most Anglo-Americans would like to spend more time with their kids and their spouse, but we have a culture where a lot of the time you are just out doing things.”

Learn more at E. Tammy Kim’s Al Jazeera America article: For children of migrant workers, choice can be the field or the car.

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